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Maps without borders: Satellite mapping to pinpoint just where aid needs to go in disaster zones

A Rohingya child in front of her hut at a refugee camp in Bangladesh.   | Photo Credit: AP

In 2010, there was a devastating earthquake in Haiti. A majority of inhabitants of Port-au-Prince, severely impacted by the quake, lived in unmarked settlements. When aid workers and humanitarian organisations landed there to plan relief activities and spot which places needed the most attention, they often didn’t have a clue where to begin. That’s when a few volunteers outside Haiti used satellite images to mark out locations and create a map that could help volunteers. The response was overwhelming.

This was the beginning of Missing Maps. In the conference room of a tony hotel in South Delhi, a bunch of people listen to a bright-eyed, bald man as he takes them through several slides of Haiti, Bangladesh or London. At the end, the participants rouse their laptops and find themselves scanning Niger, one of the poorest states in Nigeria.

Unlike the richly detailed blueprints one normally finds on Google Maps, where red, orange and blue ribbons plot the most efficient ways to reach a destination, the Niger maps are bare and, strictly, don’t quite qualify as maps.

There are no location marks, names of places, signposts. “This is where Missing Maps comes in,” explains Pete Masters, Medical Innovation Advisor at Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), which along with the American and British Red Cross organisations co-founded the project.

Masters has been involved with Missing Maps for a few years now. He is in Delhi to conduct a training session and explain the project, which builds on OpenStreetMap, a 2004 initiative that aims to create an ‘editable’ map of the world. It is analogous to how Wikipedia has positioned itself as the world’s largest editable encyclopaedia. Missing Maps describes itself as “… an open, collaborative project in which you can help to map areas where humanitarian organisations are trying to meet the needs of vulnerable people.”

Pete Masters of Medecins Sans Frontieres.

Pete Masters of Medecins Sans Frontieres.   | Photo Credit: R.V. Moorthy

In Port-au-Prince that fateful winter, “more than 600 individual contributors used satellite imagery donated by NOAA, GeoEye, DigitalGlobe, CNES, Google, along with aerial photography from World Bank/RIT flights, to hand-digitise the entire city of Port-au-Prince in astonishing detail,” as Tyler Radford, Executive Director of OpenStreetMap wrote in a 2012 blogpost.

Basically, just as commercial organisations are using satellite images and mapping to assist in taxi-hailing or food delivery, Missing Maps is using the same images to help humanitarian organisations to efficiently deliver aid and medicines in disaster zones.

Over the years, Missing Maps has seen 1,32,000 volunteers contribute time and expertise to make places come alive on maps. With many volunteers mapping places they’ve never visited, mistakes creep in. But “different volunteers, sometimes other organisations and NGOs, will go out on the field for verification,” says Masters.

Tracing shapes

Peter Paul de Groote, the Indian director-general of MSF, says that when a place is “unmapped and unmarked”, it’s akin to a living person being “non-existent”. de Groote recounts a relief trip conducted in the aftermath of the Nepal earthquake. Given the devastation, the only mode of transport was helicopter. “We had to rely on an aerial view to gauge the damage… there were no maps. Once, we returned from a location and only later realised that we’d missed a massive settlement just round the corner,” he says.

The volunteers at the Delhi session — this is the second one in the city — are a mix of software engineers, students, marketing professionals from the digital space. Most of them have heard of the mapathon from their social media networks and are attending out of curiosity. Some are motivated by altruism. Srishti Singh, a software developer, says her professional life is consumed by coding. “This seemed different… I’m comfortable with the concept and am thrilled that I am helping a humanitarian cause.” Aryaman Jain, an environmental engineer, has worked on digital mapping as part of course work, and is keen to learn about new projects that require his skills.

Tracing out shapes of buildings and structures is tedious work and Masters says that one of the challenges is keeping people motivated. On average, most people don’t spend more than an hour on a project. Over the years, though, some people have chosen to convene and map together. “I know folks who don’t know the names of their colleagues but have formed lasting communities with fellow mappers,” he says.

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Printable version | Nov 28, 2020 11:33:37 AM |

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