It’s hard to deliver aid in places that haven’t been mapped properly. You can’t find people who need help most, and you can’t begin to analyze the sources of problems and match up resources accordingly.
Ivan Gayton of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) experienced this in Haiti during its 2010 cholera outbreak. MSF had a limited number of doctors and couldn’t go everywhere in the country. Gayton had to decide where to send trucks, but he lacked information to make good decisions. MSF had documented cholera cases, but they weren’t plotted on a map. As a result, it couldn’t begin to see patient clusters and possible causes of disease, like infected water pumps.
Gayton persuaded Google to send two volunteers to translate the data into map form, and that helped. But Gayton says MSF would have saved more lives if it had had better maps from the start.
“We could see where the water outages were from the patient numbers and could talk to the water company. But I can only imagine how much more information we would have had if we’d had the map from the very beginning,” he says.
Haiti is just one example. Gayton says much of the “bottom billion” lives in areas that aren’t well mapped. “If you look at a lot of African cities, you’ll see what appears to be a fairly complete map, but only in the developed part of the city. If you look at the slums where the poor people live, it looks like nobody is there. Nobody has seen fit to spend the time to put them on the map.”
That’s why MSF is launching its Missing Maps project, along with the American and British Red Cross and a group called the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT). It aims to fill in mapping gaps by recruiting both digital volunteers–people like you–and people on the ground.
To help out, go to the Missing Maps web site and click on the “map” button under “contribute.” You’ll see the tasking manager page and a series of ongoing projects. Choose one, and after a short tutorial, you can begin tracing the outlines of rivers, roads and buildings (and so on) from satellite images. Later, locals will add in details such as street names and natural features.
You can also join one of several mapping parties the groups are organizing. Gayton recently participated in one in London, where 75 volunteers mapped an entire refugee camp in South Sudan in a single day–a job that would normally take an on-the-ground team weeks.
MSF pioneered the model with HOT in the town of Lubumbashi, in the D.R.C. A mapping party in Berlin traced the basic contours, and geographers from the University of Lubumbashi did the rest (see a record of the project here).
Gayton says people often ask him what they can do to help MSF and he’s not sure what to tell them, beyond donating money. But now he knows. “I can say ‘join a mapping party. You are providing actual operational assistance in the field.’ That is fantastic.”