When Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas on Sept. 1, local disaster response agencies quickly realized they needed help. But not the kind of help you might expect: They needed mappers.
With thousands of people missing and homes and roads underwater, responders needed to know where to look. They also needed to quickly assess the damage across multiple islands and determine the best places to set up distribution points for food, water and other basic needs. But they couldn't, because maps of the Abaco Islands, where Dorian made landfall, were incomplete.
That is, until 107 volunteers from around the world logged on to their computers and, over the course of five days, used satellite imagery and mapping software to identify and draw more than 1,600 roads and 9,000 buildings.
"Without a complete and comprehensive operating picture for all parties on the ground to use, we couldn't plan our response activities to Dorian," says Chani Goering, a spokesperson for the Pacific Disaster Center, a Hawaii-based technology company that helped coordinate the government and nongovernmental organization response to the hurricane. "Humanitarian mappers provided a critically valuable service to us in filling a data gap. In some cases, it was lifesaving."
Here in the United States — as in most of the developed world — a smartphone can provide directions to just about any location. With Google Maps, Apple Maps or any other map app, we often take for granted how easy it is to navigate from Point A to Point B.
But a lot of areas in developing countries don't exist on a map. Google Maps might show a major road running through a certain area, but instead of houses, schools and health clinics, the "map" shows empty land. That's because mapping takes resources — and most map companies won't be able to sell online ads to defray the cost of mapping remote and poor areas. Some national governments also lack the time and resources to map remote areas themselves.
Yet maps are critical in such places. Because of issues such as poverty, poor governance and a lack of infrastructure, many of these areas are susceptible to disasters and disease outbreaks. Without maps, humanitarian workers can be hamstrung in their efforts to respond. So they're increasingly turning to maps built online by professional and amateur cartographers who might be thousands of miles away from the crisis — with details filled in by locals on the ground.
"This happens surprisingly often that we are in areas that are not on any commercial maps," says Jan Bohm, a communications and community engagement manager for Doctors Without Borders (also known as Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF). "And very often, we find tens of thousands of people living in these unmapped territories."
Often, organizations like MSF and the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, a U.S.-based nonprofit, carry out mapping efforts in response to urgent crises, like Hurricane Dorian. But in 2014, MSF, HOT, the American Red Cross and the British Red Cross decided they needed to get ahead of crises. That's why they founded the Missing Maps initiative, which calls for volunteers from around the world to help humanitarian workers and organizations map all of the most vulnerable places in the developing world in case problems arise.
Of course, when disaster does strike, the mapping ramps up.
This year, in addition to mapping the Bahamas, Missing Maps volunteers have mapped Ebola-affected areas in the Democratic Republic of Congo, areas in Mozambique hit by Cyclones Idai and Kenneth, parts of Honduras affected by a dengue outbreak, communities hit by floods in the Indian state of Kerala, and the Amazon rainforest, where fire continues to ravage one of the planet's most important ecosystems and the indigenous communities that dwell within it.
The volunteers — many of whom are not professional cartographers — use satellite imagery to digitally outline basic features such as buildings, roads and waterways in OpenStreetMap, an open-source website that has been dubbed the "Wikipedia of maps." In essence, OpenStreetMap serves as a shared global repository of geographic data and information that can be refined over time.
OpenStreetMap was launched in 2004, but according to Ryan Engstrom, an associate professor of geography at George Washington University, open mapping didn't really take off until 2010 in the aftermath of the earthquake that devastated Haiti.
"That was the first time that the technology and tools were actually available to do open mapping at [the necessary] scale [for a disaster response]," he says.
Since then, the number of people who participate in open mapping has grown significantly — nearly 87,000 users. But because open mapping is still relatively new, the expert community remains small and closely intertwined, says Engstrom (he is not personally involved with Missing Maps, but George Washington University, where he teaches, is a member).
Like Wikipedia, OpenStreetMap is free and invites anyone to add and edit data. Because it's based on satellite imagery, mappers don't have to be familiar with the area they're mapping. But more advanced mappers do regularly validate the maps to ensure that features have been interpreted and drawn correctly from the satellite images. Some details — like the names of neighborhoods and what buildings are being used for (homes, hospitals, schools, shops) — can only be discerned on location, so that part of the mapping is left up to members of the community or international visitors to add in.
These maps not only serve as navigational tools to help humanitarian workers to deliver aid more quickly, but they also help responders more accurately identify needs in these areas by seeing what kinds of physical characteristics exist. For example, which communities have a harder time coping with a flood because they're close to the coast and lack infrastructure? Is there a centrally located health center that can serve as a hub for medical relief? Is there an evacuation route? Answering these types of questions can make a big difference for a response team.
"It's very challenging to make decisions quickly and prioritize a humanitarian response without having a real sense of who lives where, what their resilience may be to [a disaster] and their overall vulnerability levels," says Ben Leo, CEO and co-founder of Fraym, a geospatial data and analytics company, and a former senior fellow at the Center for Global Development.
Beyond just crowdsourcing, Missing Maps has also adopted interesting techniques from Silicon Valley startups to build up their humanitarian open mapping community, says Leo. They encourage participation with a competitive leaderboard that ranks contributors by kilometers of road they've mapped and buildings they've drawn.
Missing Maps also facilitates "mapathons" — people get together in person or online to map a certain part of the world — and has developed tutorials that promise to make mapping an easy skill to pick up.
I decided to try it out myself. After watching four two-minute videos, I opened HOT's task manager, created a username and selected a high-priority flood response project in India. The 1-kilometer square I began with only had a canal and one major road already mapped. But looking at the provided satellite images, I could see plenty of dirt roads and buildings that needed to be mapped. So I began to trace those features over the satellite images. Within half an hour, I had mapped a handful of buildings and several roads in an Indian village I had never heard of before. By no means had I completed my 1-kilometer square, but I can return to it at any time — or someone else may finish it for me.
The process was surprisingly simple, and the stakes felt low, because I knew that a more advanced mapper would review my work and fix any mistakes. And although it was a bit tedious, it was also gratifying. As Bohm says, "It's so rewarding when you know that every single mapping project we're being asked to do is being patiently awaited by someone in the field who needs the data in order to do their work."
According to one estimate, more than 405,000 villages on OpenStreetMap remain "unmapped." But even that term is open to different definitions, Engstrom says: "It depends on how much detail you need."
As open mapping continues to grow, Leo warns that it is "imperative for anyone who is involved in small or big ways to have a very strong sense of responsibility for privacy." That's why, according to Bohm, the consent, well-being and participation of local populations — both in mapping and in determining which areas need to be mapped — are core tenets of Missing Maps' ethical code.
Leo says that so far, Missing Maps has done a good job of making sure that no personally identifiable information is included on a map, such as names or ethnic groups that might be party to a conflict. Because the maps are open-source, people also always have the power to delete themselves from a map if they want to.
Because OpenStreetMap is open to changes from anybody, Engstrom says it's also important to maintain the quality moving forward. With any open-source platform, there is a risk of poor data, says Engstrom. Still, he believes that constant peer review by a community of mappers, growing both in size and experience, means that open mapping will continue to gain support.
"Remember when Wikipedia started? Everybody said, 'Oh, it's not going to work; you can't cite it,' " Engstrom says. "Ten years ago, I pooh-poohed the idea of open mapping. Now I think it's the future."
Joanne Lu is a freelance journalist who covers global poverty and inequity. Her work has appeared in Humanosphere, The Guardian, Global Washington and War is Boring. Follow her on Twitter @joannelu.