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Open-Source Mapping the World's Most Vulnerable Regions Will Save Lives

Urgent humanitarian aid missions are slowed when cities are largely unmapped. Missing Maps aims to change that with the help of volunteer cartographers and local residents.

Responding to a humanitarian crisis is a race against the clock. Following a major natural disaster—last year's typhoon in the Philippines for example, or the 2010 earthquake in Haiti—displaced populations are often in immediate need of food, shelter, and medical assistance. Quickly transporting items and people between two points of a city is essential.

For years, however, the ability of NGOs to swiftly save lives has been slowed by a dearth in accurate mapping. Urban landscapes in many parts of the developing world are undergoing remarkable change, notably due to informal housing structures and accelerating migration. Yet mapping these burgeoning cities has been slow. In turn, humanitarians navigating these crisis zones, perhaps delivering a crucial box of IVs to a local hospital ward, have been without reliable layouts of the land. But a global mapping project is hoping to correct this.

Using OpenStreetMap, a popular open-source data tool, European and American volunteers are creating maps for humanitarian agencies to use in the field. The initiative is called Missing Maps, and was launched in November by a collection of relief agencies, including the American Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders. And while mapping Lulimba, a village in Eastern Congo, may sound difficult, it's actually pretty easy.

After logging into OpenStreetMap's humanitarian application, a volunteer simply picks one of the cities or regions that an NGO needs mapped. (These are generally areas where a humanitarian crisis has recently bubbled up, or where an NGO is planning to do aid work.) After a city or country region is selected, volunteers choose a roughly one-square-mile area that is unmapped. Using a key of different color schemes and point markers, a volunteer demarcates every home, street, and building he or she can decipher. A once bland map of an isolated African city is suddenly detailed with different colored structures, street intersections, and vegetation.

"Crowdsourced mapping like the Missing Maps project is so easy," says Becky Dale, who recently attended a Mapathon in London. Dale admits she's "no relief worker," but found mapping the small city of Bangassou in the Central African Republic to be intuitive. She outlined a dense residential area hidden in one of Bangassou's forested areas, a city that has been ravaged by a rebellion during the past year and a half. Because of the area's density, "It was slow going," Dale explains, as she carefully outlined the angles and circumference of each building. Dale's volunteer mapping, however, could prove to be invaluable for humanitarian agencies operating in that part of the Central African Republic.

Kate Chapman, the executive director of OpenStreetMaps' humanitarian team, says building details assist NGOs as they estimate the scale of vulnerable communities. "Imagine if you're reaching out to really rural communities, and there's small villages of maybe 10 or 20 buildings," Chapman highlights. "You're not going to just happen upon those [people]. You're really going to need a map to help with that," she says.

This initial mapping work, usually done by young, Western volunteers at local universities, is only the first step. Locals living in areas affected by a humanitarian crisis will ultimately perfect the maps.

Once the general buildings and roads of an area have been mapped, NGOs coordinate with tech-savvy Congolese, South Sudanese, and others to intensify the map's detail. They have the most knowledge about their cities and are able to label whether a building is a school or a government office. Local residents can confirm if a certain road is passable by car. Some inter-city roadways may flood during rainy seasons, which NGOs—and college students in the West—might be unaware of. These are the details that can make the difference between an NGO responding in 20 minutes or 2 hours.

In this way, the Missing Maps project is a rare development effort that hinges on collaboration between people on different sides of the world. Western relief efforts in the developing world (like Band Aid) too often exclude the skills the insight of local communities. Conversely, some development efforts that operate singularly through their beneficiaries ultimately fail because they lack adequate technical training. Kelsey Nyland, a graduate student at George Washington University who recently participated in mapping event, sees this new teamwork model as a positive byproduct of the project.

"When I digitize a building someone on the ground can then validate the data,'" Nyland explains. "They can identify it as a hospital for example, or other critical infrastructure."

Nyland and other members of George Washington's Humanitarian Mapping Society worked diligently last month to outline Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. Still, 70 percent of the map needs to be filled in. Maps of South Sudan, Rwanda, and Congo also urgently need attention from volunteer cartographers. So click here to give it a try. It's free to do, and could save a life.