Saving the World with a Mouse Click

By Anna Kultin

Photo by Jen Blackwood

Big data and digital networks are reshaping the world of philanthropy. A global project called Missing Maps allows anyone to help save the lives of millions affected by disasters. All you need is time, a computer and the internet.

The Missing Maps project was born of the fallout from a real-life catastrophic seismic event that occurred in Haiti in 2010. Volunteers from the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap team armed with the sparse maps faced a desperate challenge: to find victims scattered across the poorly mapped island before it was too late. Doctors and humanitarian responders spent precious time wandering through confusing roads within unrecognizable neighborhoods destroyed by a massive earthquake.

“Many of the world’s population centers are not mapped in sufficient detail”, said Colin Peterson, Corporate Partnership Officer for the American Red Cross. “If you’re lucky you might have digital maps that show major trunk roads and capital cities but it doesn’t get you down to the level of detail required to show you how many alleyways, city blocks and cross sections a city has.” Those details are critical for humanitarian organizations trying to deliver help to vulnerable regions.

When Red Cross, in partnership with other humanitarian organizations, first brought up the idea of mapping such areas, it was deemed a very ambitious social project. Dale Kunce, senior Geospatial Engineer and GIS Team Leader, describes the goal: “Our simple idea was to try and document those vulnerable areas that are not yet ‘on the map’. People in those regions are often on the margins of society and cannot advocate for themselves – previously, either people in power didn’t know they existed, or people in power chose to ignore that they existed.”

The success of the Missing Maps project amazed even its own creators. In less than two years, powered by the help of 13,000 digital volunteers, the local data in OpenStreetMap took on a more concrete form. Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea, Philippines and even some areas in the US saw new roads and missing towns and villages added to their maps. More than 22 million edits have been made to date, and locales populated by over 20.5 million people have been mapped. The goal is now to stretch this coverage to span regions inhabited by 200 million people, to be mapped by 2021.

A unique feature of this project is the simplicity of the learning process and the support of the global network of the Red Cross volunteers. Anyone who has a computer, an OpenStreetMap account, and access to the internet can become an Online mapper. “It will take a volunteer,” Morgan Beach of the Red Cross explains, “who knows nothing about using the platform just 20 minutes to learn the system. They learn how the platform works and then they start digitally tracing satellite imagery.”

After remote mappers trace the outlines of buildings or roads somewhere in South Africa, a team of volunteers on the ground will verify the map data and localize it. In the final stage, the new mapping data is handed back to humanitarian organizations responsible for the final validation.

It’s been less than two years since Microsoft joined the team of humanitarian organizations, donating original satellite imagery and their employees’ volunteer time. Last October, the company hosted 33 events called mapathons and engaged more than 900 employees to help the Red Cross with the Missing Maps project. “Microsoft’s support has become a hallmark for a corporate partnership with Missing Maps,” Beach said. “Their enthusiasm for the project is having a huge impact on humanitarian mapping projects.”

Jubal Harpster, Senior Program Manager at Microsoft, was involved with online mapping before joining the Missing Maps project. Now he brings that enthusiasm to thousands of Microsoft employees in the form of Missing Maps mapathons. “From the success we saw with the Missing Maps micro-volunteering events throughout October at Microsoft, we think there’s a great opportunity for our employees and the humanitarian partners involved in this project to impact the initiative’s success,” Jubal says.

Founders of the Missing Maps project compare OpenStreetMap and the work of the Missing Maps project to Wikipedia of maps, where edits belong not to big companies but to thousands and millions of individuals all over the world.

“This project is never going to be done”, Beach added, “because human Infrastructure is always changing.”

 

The Missing Maps project urges more volunteers to map the world: http://www.missingmaps.org/

 

 

 

 

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