Missing maps: filling in the blanks

Backed by an army of digital volunteers, Missing Maps aims to create free, online maps for every settlement on earth

When Ebola struck West Africa in 2014, aid agencies rushing to help faced an unusual challenge: finding the victims.

Alongside the tens of villages and settlements clamouring for help, were dozens more invisible to relief teams. These, like great swathes of the undeveloped world, were overlooked and for a simple reason – they don’t appear on maps.

A shockingly large percentage of the world remains unmapped. From cities in emerging countries, to vast rural regions in the developing world, whole communities exist with little to no official data on their location, geography or population size. Poor and underdeveloped, they are at increased risk of natural disasters, conflict and disease outbreaks – and without maps, humanitarian agencies can struggle to respond.

Missing Maps is one answer. Launched in 2014, it is the brainchild of the American and British Red Cross, Médecins Sans Frontières and Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT). Backed by an army of digital volunteers, the project aims to create free, online maps for every settlement on earth.

“All you need is a computer to contribute; time and skill are the donations,” says Andrew Braye of the British Red Cross. “It’s a real collaborative effort.”

The method is simple. Remote mappers use satellite images to trace the outlines of buildings, roads, rivers, and other key landmarks in a given area, creating a basic, digital map. This is printed out and given to volunteers on the ground in the community; anyone from students to local aid workers. These volunteers add in details such as street and building names, to add colour and context. Lastly, the completed map is fed back to Missing Maps’ offices in London, where more volunteers update the information on OpenStreetMap. The result is a freely available digital map, and a vital tool for helping to shape future disaster response efforts.

“There are many people who want to offer hands-on help, rather than just money,” says Kate Chapman, executive director, HOT. “This – filling in holes in geographic information – this is something they can do.”

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