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Ground truths: looking for missing maps

Ground truths: looking for missing maps
24 Jul
A volunteer-led digital mapping project is at the heart of efforts to combat humanitarian disasters

In an airy, open-plan office in London’s West End, a life-and-death struggle against the threat of Ebola is underway. There are no patients or doctors here, no high-tech laboratories desperately looking for a way to treat the disease. Instead, the office is awash with the electronic hum of dozens of laptop computers, and an almost party-like mood in the volunteer crowd beavering away over the keyboards, each screen displaying zoomed-in maps of different areas in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The atmosphere is more Shoreditch startup than front-line research. But for all the conviviality, drinks and slices of pizza being devoured by the crowd, there’s a serious side to the work being done at this latest ‘Mapathon’ event being run by Missing Maps, a GIS charity dedicated to creating accurate geographic records of some of the world’s most vulnerable places.

Missing Maps was formed in 2014 as a coalition of humanitarian groups, including Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), the British and American Red Cross and OpenStreetMap’s (OSM) Humanitarian team. While the group’s efforts support a wide range of disasters, particular emphasis is being given at the current gathering to helping with a preventative campaign underway in the DRC to vaccinate locals against the country’s ninth outbreak of Ebola. ‘We have started planning the vaccination campaign,’ says Jorieke Vynke, Missing Maps’ co-ordinator for MSF, ‘but in order to know who is at risk and how to reach them, we need a detailed understanding of the area.’


Enter the mapathons. Focusing on the DRC’s Équateur province, where all 12 confirmed cases of the disease have occurred, the London Missing Map volunteers (as well as others taking part at similar events in places such as Geneva, Barcelona, Norway and Beirut) use satellite images to outline the rough shape of roads, buildings and community areas. After initial outlining, a local team in the DRC then adds information such as street names or key buildings and checks for errors, often with the help of a GIS specialist. Once verified, the maps exist on the open-source OSM platform, meaning they can be updated by volunteers all over the world. It also means they’re free to use.

The mapathons help to concentrate efforts at particular times and in particular directions, but the volunteer work can in fact be done by anyone at any time using a laptop or smart device, the freely-available app MapSwipe and/or a free, registered account on OSM. Cartographic enthusiasts of all skill levels are welcome, with training sessions for newbies and leaderboards showing who’s contributed the most building edits, or plotted the longest amount of roads. 

The work is vital as larger, commercial setups aren’t covering the areas under threat. ‘In many developing countries, OSM maps are more detailed than Google’s because Google has no commercial incentive to improve its maps there,’ says a spokesman for MSF.

Overall, Missing Maps aims to be a pre-emptive effort at improving maps for all vulnerable areas, and has so far recorded more than 31 million buildings (including three million previously ‘missing’ structures) and nearly 830,000km of roads.

Find out how to participate at missingmaps.org

This was published in the July 2018 edition of Geographical magazine

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