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The Missing Maps project is mapping developing cities to curb the spread of ebola

In the age of satellite photography and GPS, it seems unbelievable that parts of the world are still unmapped and uncharted. But, especially in the developing world, entire cities lack reliable, up to date maps, and this can make it hard for humanitarian agencies to do their jobs during natural disasters or outbreaks of disease.

Enter the Missing Maps project, through which the Red Cross, Médecins Sans Frontières and Humanitarian Open Street Maps are crowdsourcing street-level maps of unmapped cities. At the moment, they’re focussing on creating maps to track the spread of ebola, and to help medical aid and volunteers reach sufferers more easily. In the long term, they hope to map the most “crisis-prone” parts of the developing world.

This Guardian piece explains how the project works:

The first step is to take satellite images – which, it may surprise you to learn, are often made available to the open mapping community from such unexpected sources as US government agencies and Microsoft – and plug them into the free mapping software OpenStreetMap. 

Volunteers then log in remotely, from anywhere in the world, and use a easy point-and-click tool to literally trace the outlines of buildings, roads, parks and rivers over the satellite image. Remove the image and voila: you have a basic, digital city map.

The project’s coordinators then print out these basic maps and hand them out to local volunteers, who work their way through a small area, filling in the names of streets and buildings. The volunteers then post the maps back to the project’s headquarters in London.

To illustrate the difference the maps can make, compare the two below – on the left is the hand-drawn map used by Médecins Sans Frontières volunteers in Katanga, a province in the Democratic Republic of Congo; to the right is a Missing Maps-created map of Lubumbashi, a city in the DRC: 

Image: MSF.

The project operates through OpenStreetMap, an open-source, online world map editable by anyone. (You can view changes to the map in real time here – be warned, it’s oddly addictive.)

Relying on crowdsourcing is, of course, tricky; especially as the Missing Maps process relies on a degree of digital literacy in its volunteers. As a result, the Guardian piece claims the project will require “the biggest team of digital humanitarian volunteers ever conceived”. But access to detailed city maps could do more than just speed up aid delivery – it could help authorities improve everything from housing policy to waste strategies.
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