By Jasmine Turner, AmeriCorps member serving the American Red Cross NW Region


Recently, in the bustling University Village Microsoft store, people of all walks of life could be seen sitting in the back of the building, hunched and hyper-focused over their personal laptops as they worked towards their goal for the day: Mapping vulnerable, uncharted areas in Khayelitsha, Cape Town South Africa.

This particular area is only one of many slums that are susceptible to rapid fire destruction, a result of close-knit communities housed under faulty wiring, surrounded by thin walls built on unsafe or structurally unsound foundations. This in tandem with the inability, at times, to contain fires meant to keep families warm at night, brings chaos. One home goes up in flames, setting off a chain reaction in the surrounding area. Pathways between homes are narrow and often blocked, making evacuations frantic and dangerous. Most residents do not know whom to call for firefighting assistance. If, by chance, firefighters are available and able to help, they have a difficult time navigating the confusing alleyways and dense housing, seriously limiting their capacity to respond to fires quickly enough to make a difference.

This is where Missing Maps comes in.

An innovative partnership between American Red Cross, British Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, and OpenStreetMap trains digital volunteers with the skills to stealthily map these vulnerable areas. All it takes is internet access. Then, volunteers in a given country, such as South Africa, can take action to help, such as going to Khayelitsha, visiting the community members, and undertaking disaster risk reduction (DRR) activities and help save lives.

The local Microsoft Store hosted a “Mapathon” to celebrate a year of successful progress on the Missing Maps project. As an AmeriCorps member of the Red Cross, I worked with a diverse group of people, striving to reach every community possible. We’re excited about getting people involved in international service work, whether they want to come together in a group volunteer setting or dial in from the comfort of their own homes. Either way, we are making a difference. Little by little, this particular area of Cape Town has been mapped with buildings, roads, rivers, and many other identifying markers to help the Red Cross partners in Africa. Their goal is to install a low-cost, smart home solar-powered sensor system to each home, making these spontaneous neighborhood areas safer for all who reside there.

Because of the great collaborations for this project, this corner of Cape Town is just one of dozens around the world that are open for mapping. And the best part? It’s easy and accessible to anyone. All you need is a computer and some time. It’s a great way to bring different people, groups and corporations together, to bring vulnerable people safety from the disaster—home fire, landslide, hurricane, earthquake or other– that may come their way.

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