March 16, 2015

By Claudia Blume

When London, England, was struck by a cholera outbreak in 1854, British epidemiologist John Snow wrote down addresses of cholera victims, put them on a map, traced the outbreak and figured out its source: a contaminated water pump in Soho, which was then immediately shut down.

Fast-forward more than 150 years, to the 2010 cholera outbreak in Haiti: Canadian Ivan Gayton, then head of mission for Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Haiti, was surprised to find that the most accurate maps of the capital, Port-au-Prince, had only just been created following the earthquake of a few months earlier, by volunteers for the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team. Without those maps, MSF would not have been able to trace the cholera outbreak.

“We were successful in mapping cholera in Haiti, but realized the staggering scale of the job required in order to do the same everywhere else,” recalls Gayton. “In the West, we take for granted that we have maps in order to practice public health. You will never be treated at a hospital in Canada without being asked your address. If we want to give the same level of care to people in resource-poor countries, we have to know where they are from.”

Accurate, up-to-date maps are essential tools for aid agencies responding to emergencies. But even in the age of satellite photography and Google Earth, many communities around the globe are literally not yet on the map. Inspired by his experience in Haiti, Gayton co-founded the Missing Maps Project, a collaboration between MSF, the Red Cross and the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team. The project’s ambitious goal is to map the world’s poorest and most vulnerable places within the next two years.


A comparison between a hand-drawn MSF map of Lubumbashi, in Democratic Republic of Congo, left, with a map made with OpenStreetMap.


'We had 17 people working in the field, and hundreds supporting us from abroad. That’s how you get it done'


Preparing for when disaster strikes

Missing Maps was officially launched in November 2014, when volunteers around the world started mapping settlements in West Africa affected by the recent Ebola outbreak. But while the Ebola mapping exercise was reactive, the ultimate goal of the project is to create maps proactively. “Instead of waiting for the crowds to arrive when there is a CNN emergency, let’s use the names of MSF and the Red Cross to inspire people to create maps before a disaster strikes,” says Gayton. “We choose the vulnerable places, we map them, and when a disaster strikes we are ready.”

Currently, any given Missing Maps project begins with MSF or the Red Cross making a mapping request for a particular place; from that point, it takes about 20 days to create a map. The next step is to take satellite images, made openly available by sources such as the European Space Agency, and plug them into OpenStreetMap, an open-source mapping program. Teams of online volunteers around the world — often gathered together at so-called “mapathons” in cities such as London or Jakarta — then trace the outlines of buildings, roads, rivers or other landmarks on the satellite images to create digital base maps. Sections of these maps are then sent to local volunteers, who print out the pages and walk around the city to add street names and other details. All pages have a QR code, and when they are scanned and sent back to OpenStreetMap, the new information is automatically added. As a last step, data-entry parties are held to make sure all data are accurately entered into the map. Humanitarian organizations can then use the mapped information to plan risk-reduction and disaster-response activities.


Participants at the November 2014 mapathon in Vancouver.


Mapmakers of the world unite

To create a map of Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a town prone to cholera outbreaks where many streets remained undocumented, Gayton walked around the city with MSF staff and volunteers from the local university’s geography department. “During that time, we had mapathons in Germany, the UK, Canada, Hungary, Burkina Faso, Togo and Senegal that were supporting us,” he says. “If you look at the map of the southern part of Lubumbashi on OpenStreetMap now, it looks like downtown Manhattan. We had 17 people working in the field, and hundreds supporting us from abroad. That’s how you get it done.”

The first Canadian mapathon took place in Vancouver in November 2014. Almost 40 people participated, most of them gathering in one room to trace the outlines of a town in South Sudan. Participants were enthusiastic. “There were a lot of people who were really excited that they could contribute to something that is ongoing and be directly involved with an aid organization,” says Christian Hill, the organizer of the Vancouver event. “It’s really exciting to know that what you are doing directly affects what happens on the ground.”

The digital volunteers in Vancouver plan to meet once a month to continue with their mapathons. Gayton hopes that more Canadians will join – particularly members from diaspora communities who can contribute to the creation of maps of their home countries.

Claudia Blume is a press officer with Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) Canada. This article appears in the Spring 2015 issue of Dispatches, the MSF Canada magazine.


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