Crowdsourced Mapping Could Help Prevent the Next Big Ebola Outbreak

The virus often hit in remote, unmapped parts of the world, but volunteers are filling in the missing gaps, and you can too.

(Photo: Earth Imaging/Getty Images)

Apr 14, 2015· 3 MIN READ
TakePart fellow Jessica Dollin studied journalism at the University of Arizona. She has written for the Phoenix New Times and HerCampus.

Ebola dominated headlines this past year, but the epicenter of the outbreak wasn’t on a map until after the virus had infected and killed thousands. Without geographical resources, aid workers were tasked with the challenge of navigating remote areas to locate people in need of assistance.

So what if there was a way to provide this type of information—and what if someone could help from the comfort of his or her own home? OpenStreetMap (OSM), an online project to create a free, editable map of the world using crowdsourced data, is making that a reality through an international initiative known as the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT). The effort works in collaboration with the Missing Maps Project, which identifies vulnerable places in the developing world using the OSM technology.

“Government administrations in these countries are quite limited, and it takes too much time to obtain from them essential databases such as town place-names, geolocalization of hospitals,” said Pierre Béland, a HOT activation coordinator who is coleading the Ebola response.

Think of OSM as the Wikipedia of maps. Anyone with an Internet connection can take part in digital volunteerism by logging on to the website to add and update information—in this case, by helping label remote locales or mapping out the most crisis-prone areas around the globe.

Once OSM caught on for mapping Ebola last year, it took volunteers around the world just 24 hours to complete a map of three areas where the virus was spreading. While the number of Ebola cases has dropped significantly, the disease continues to linger in remote pockets of West Africa—30 new cases were confirmed in recent weeks, according to the World Health Organization.

The HOT initiative is made possible through various partnerships with Doctors Without Borders, the Red Cross, The Guardian, and the United States government. Participating doesn’t require much expertise or mapping experience. First, set up an account on the OpenStreetMap website. OSM offers tutorials, or a user can jump straight to mapping. Next, with the help of a computer mouse, trace satellite imagery into the program—points represent places, lines represent roads, and “paths,” as the program calls them, represent landmarks, such as buildings, fields, and other large areas. A user then labels his or her contribution with a color code that indicates the level of completion in that locale and is asked to credit the work so others know when an edit was made and who did it. The idea is that multiple people can contribute information, so knowing the specific name of an area, road, or place isn’t necessary as long as it’s marked.

(Photo: Courtesy

Once the changes are saved, they go live and are available for anyone who logs on to OSM to see. However, the maps can always be updated. The information is also vetted by four geographic information system specialists from a French NGO called CartONG, who are in West Africa working directly with epidemiologists.

As part of the Ebola response, Doctors Without Borders purchased satellite imagery for three towns at the center of the epidemic in the Kailahun and Kenema districts of Sierra Leone, which HOT members were asked to map last spring. The U.S. State Department, MapBox, and Airbus Defense and Space also provided free supplemental satellite imagery. HOT volunteers used the images as a blueprint to trace a map, and residents within the towns later identified specific local details, which were then noted on the digital map.

“From space you can tell there’s a large building somewhere, but you’d have to stand next to it to determine it’s a hospital,” said Kate Chapman, former executive director of HOT. “You need to be present, so with disaster preparedness, we teach people to collect data in the places they live and work.”

HOT was launched shortly after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, when a Cholera outbreak prompted OSM to create an online database of vetted map information for aid agencies. The Red Cross also used OSM as part of its Typhoon Haiyan response efforts—more than 4.7 million contributions were logged on behalf of 1,679 volunteers, equivalent to three to four years’ worth of mapping by one person.

These post-crisis mapping frameworks also prepare responders for future catastrophes of a similar nature, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development. For example, OSM data was incorporated into planning exercises and a response scenario was developed for potential earthquakes in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Today, the crowdsource mapping community is more than 1.5 million strong, and 1,700 amateur cartographers have helped put Ebola on the map since March 2014. OSM has mapped parts of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone—the work has translated into 1 million buildings, 36,000 places, and 147,000 kilometers of roads.

Open-source mapping is only continuing to grow. The U.S. Department of State’s Humanitarian Information Unit launched a similar initiative called Map Give, which teaches volunteers how to map online. Imagery to the Crowd, part of the State Department’s Humanitarian Information Unit, provides map information to decision makers and partners.

“The overarching goal is a free map of the entire world. The way HOT fits in is we want to make sure those vulnerable and less known are on the map,” Chapman said.