Creating Maps for a Crisis

Close-up on a map of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

In 2014 and 2015, Ebola spread quickly across the borders of Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia. Though numerous organizations contributed time, manpower, money, and resources to combat the disease and curb its further spread, the ease of transmission of this highly contagious disease was exacerbated by something that many of us in the US take for granted: a lack of accurate maps. Today, those facing the current outbreak occurring in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have found themselves encountering the same problems.

The nonprofit Missing Maps is working to change this problem, and to empower communities to add themselves to the global map. Their website lists two objectives:

  1. “To map the most vulnerable places in the developing world, in order that international and local NGOs and individuals can use the maps and data to better respond to crises affecting the areas.
  2. To support OpenStreetMap, specifically the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT), in developing technologies, skills, workflows, and communities.”

Over the course of 2016, they sent over 120 volunteers with over 100 motorbike drivers to more than 7,000 communities along the borders of the three West African countries hit by Ebola. From these 7,000 communities, they chose 100 to undergo more extensive mapping, which included details about “every water point, health facility and other community resource in the area.” (To look at the data collected, you can visit the project’s page at the Humanitarian Data Exchange.)

Today, those facing the crisis in the Congo are seeing similar problems as those in West Africa, which Ed Yong recently wrote about in The Atlantic. He writes that “until very recently, they haven’t had the resources to get accurate geolocalized data. Instead, the boundaries of the health zones and their constituent ‘health areas,’ as well as the position of specific villages, towns, rivers, hospitals, clinics, and other landmarks, are often based on local knowledge and hand-drawn maps. […] Much of the Congo is also incredibly remote, and many villages have never been included on a digital map. Some were added based on information from the last census, which was done in 1984, using data points that often weren’t actually collected on the ground.”

Detailed mapping of a country allows for more accurate pinpointing of where Ebola cases are occurring, and their paths of transmission. It also leads to better understanding of where existing health centers and hospitals are, as well as communal areas such as schools and water pumps, and accessibility via roads: “For example, if a community has a high population but no health clinics and few accessible roads, that community would be more vulnerable to another Ebola outbreak and have a more difficult time receiving aid.” This also helps with reporting population counts across the country, especially in the Congo where, as noted above, the last census was done in 1984—over thirty years ago. Knowing a town or region's population can be crucial in determining rates of mortality and morbidity, as well as how many vaccines are needed for transport to that region. This last aspect is particularly important during this crisis as, for the first time, an Ebola vaccine is being deployed in a country at the time of an outbreak, and the need for maps of towns and roads is even more vital because the vaccine “must be kept at a temperature between -60 and -80 degrees centigrade.” This means that time is of the essence and accurate directions are of the utmost importance in getting the vaccines to sites in critical need of them.

We already know how important cultural sensitivity and intercultural communication are in the field of global health. NPR recently published an article that looks at the hazards of sending visiting medical professionals and students into developing countries: “Perhaps a doctor performs a surgery, then goes home. The patient develops complications, and there's no local health-care worker who can help them. Or maybe the visiting medical professionals offer free care that takes business away from local docs. Medical students might want to try a surgery they wouldn't be able to do in the U.S. because they haven't had enough training. Medications that are provided for these docs may be past their expiration date. And students sometimes are oblivious to local customs — say, that women dress modestly or a physician should not touch a patient of the opposite sex.” Cross-cultural competence plays a large role determining the success or failure of a medical mission abroad. But what does this have to do with mapping during a crisis?

Just as it is important to communicate and work with the communities into which medical professionals and volunteers are embedding themselves, it is important to enable those communities to take charge and ensure that the partnership is one which they can build on once those visiting professionals have left. This is the attitude that Missing Maps has taken towards achieving its objectives: “When working locally, people come before the data. Meaning if the goal is to map a city there needs to be a plan in place to ensure access to technology and training for those living in that community to continue using the maps after project completion.” Moreover, they “emphasize building, and leaving behind, local capacity and access. We are cautious about rapid data collection without significant local participation, and always make efforts to ensure local access.”

Towns, villages, points of interest: these are all best understood by the people living in these communities, and their input is invaluable. Maps aren't just lines and dots on a page denoting fixed places. They represent people's homes and livelihoods (urban or rural, factories or farms); how health or economic or political crises can change a community over time (does that community shrink? grow? move?); how people move from place to place (roads, waterways, footpaths). Creating a map isn't just a matter of convenience, but a way of understanding the people in a community, and knowing how to respond to areas in crisis means understanding these intricacies. Gaining the input and opinions of those community members is crucial in developing maps, and in order to keep them updated and accurate over time, training communities in the technology and methods is just as vital.

Are you interested in helping build the maps of these countries? Check out the links below to learn more.