Missing Maps

The need to preemptively map the world’s most vulnerable populations


The lack of adequate maps of West African countries when the Ebola epidemic began highlighted the global humanitarian community’s extreme need to preemptively map the world’s most vulnerable populations and regions, according to Dale Kunce, a senior geospatial engineer and GIS team lead for the American Red Cross.

Although Kunce describes the collaborative and open-source mapping efforts that have taken place since spring 2014 as nothing short of amazing, he can’t help but wonder how different the outcome might have been with better geospatial information available at the outset of the crisis.

“We were mapping so much, but what if we’d built up the mapping infrastructure [beforehand] so that we could have more effectively deployed those teams?” Kunce said. “Does that mean one life or 100 would have been better? I don’t know, but it could’ve made a huge difference.”

Before After Faranah

Map of Faranah, Guinea, pre-Ebola response (left) and today, after the activation of Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) volunteers.

To address this need, the American Red Cross, in coordination with the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT), reached out to the British Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres) to create the Missing Maps project. The project’s objectives are to map the most vulnerable places in the developing world, as well as to support HOT in developing new technologies, workflows, and communities.

The U.S. State Department is also working to build communities around OSM through its MapGive and Imagery to the Crowd initiatives, but Missing Maps is unique in that it’s a collaborative effort by and for non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

“The goal of [these initiatives] is this growing network and movement around creating the best map of the world in OSM because the uses and applications are limitless and add real value in the critical, lifesaving context,” said Benson Wilder, a geographer and analyst with the State Department’s Humanitarian Information Unit.

In its first year, Missing Maps will actively seek additional partnerships among NGOs and individuals interested in being open data and software advocates.

“The Red Cross is not going to be able to map the entire world by ourselves nor do we want to,” Kunce said. “We are openly seeking new organizations to join us in our efforts to help map the world’s vulnerable places before disaster.”

Return to feature story: An Unprecedented Response

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