By Gordon Williams 

If you’re looking for a Red Cross activity that fits the moment, look no further than the Missing Maps program.  

It is carried out online at virtual events called Map-a-thons, with no face-to-face contact. “All you need is a computer and an internet connection,” says Colin Peterson, senior philanthropy officer for the Red Cross Pacific Division. Peterson notes the program is highly scalable, meaning it can be offered to groups of any size. “We can do it for 15 people or for 150 people,” he says. 

The work you do at a Map-a-thon would be of inestimable value to humanitarian organizations, such as the Red Cross, when they respond to disasters throughout the world. “This isn’t busy work,” says Peterson. “It is central to how we plan for a disaster relief operation.”         

Colin Peterson offers instruction at a Missing Maps event in 2015

What’s missing is the full geographic detail that makes the maps useful whenever a helping hand is needed to get a community through an emergency. Consider relief crews responding to an earthquake or a pandemic in some far-off locale. Roads, bridges, even whole villages, may not show up on existing maps.  

Even in the developed world, not all areas are thoroughly mapped. Thus, Map-a-thons run by the Canadian Red Cross concentrate on fleshing out maps of Canada. Participants at Map-a-thons use satellite images and other resources to fill in those missing details. 

The Missing Maps project began in 2014 as a joint venture involving both the American and British Red Cross organizations, plus Doctors Without Borders and the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT). The OpenStreetMap Team says it stresses humanitarian action and community development through open mapping. 

The Missing Maps program has now grown to 16 global non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Since its founding, according to the website at, the program “has held over 3,000 Map-a-thons in 80 counties, training roughly 100,000 volunteers and putting over 200 million people on the map.” Visit the site to learn about the program in detail. 

Colin Peterson says the Red Cross Northwest Region, including Washington and Northern Idaho, does some 200 Map-a-thons a year. His philanthropy function puts him in contact with corporate partners that support the Red Cross, both financially and by supplying volunteers. Employees of Microsoft alone take part in 75 to 100 Map-a-thons a year, Peterson says.  

Other corporations that have hosted Map-a-thons include Amazon, Intel, MasterCard, banking giant J.P. Morgan, insurance company Symetra and online retailer Zulily. By hosting Map-a-thons, corporations demonstrate their support for humanitarian causes. The events further deepen the ties between corporate partners and the Red Cross. By taking part, corporate employees contribute to a worthy cause.  

Because Map-a-thons do accomplish great things, the volunteers who take part can feel engaged — something not easily accomplished while the pandemic has everyone operating at a distance. And, as Peterson explains, once the maps are filled in, they become highly useful to the communities that have been mapped. “Once the communities have the maps, they can use them in countless ways,” he says. 

In developing the Red Cross role in Missing Maps, the emphasis has mostly been on corporate sponsors hosting the events. Check to determine if your employer is a corporate sponsor of Map-a-thons; if not, suggest that your employer contact the American Red Cross to see about signing up.

While Peterson’s reach covers the whole Pacific Region (the Pacific Coast plus the Pacific Islands) he is based in Seattle. Contact Peterson at (For a more extensive look at Missing Maps, look at the article done by Red Cross staffer Morgan Beach at maps). 

Going forward, there will be more Map-a-thons run by local Red Cross chapters, aimed at Red Cross volunteers. In fact, the Red Cross has run community-based Map-a-thons in the past — as many as one a month in the region, says Peterson.

The community program was recently revived with an online Map-a-thon run by Rachel Levine, Missing Maps Program Coordinator at Red Cross National Headquarters in Washington D.C. I took part in the class which filled in details on a map of the Indonesian island of Java. It took around a half-hour for me to learn how to fill in the blanks. 

There will be more of these community Map-a-thons in the future, says Peterson. At a time when so many Red Cross activities are shut down or severely limited, the online nature of Map-a-thons makes them particularly appealing. “It is an additional way that Red Cross volunteers can stay engaged, without having to huddle in a room with a bunch of people,” Peterson says. 

For information about future community Map-a-thons, you can contact Rachel at

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