accessibility & help

Volunteers map the way to disaster response

New partnership launched between American Red Cross, British Red Cross, Humanitarian Open Street Map Team and Médecins Sans Frontières.

Missing Maps Project aims to map some of the most vulnerable settlements in the world.

Volunteers working remotely and digitally can contribute to international humanitarian response.

Maps will help humanitarian agencies plan responses to natural disasters, conflicts and epidemics.

Around the world an army of volunteers are quietly mapping some of the most remote parts of the globe, from their computers, in a bid to assist humanitarian agencies.

Maps and mapping are an established and essential part of disaster response during conflict, natural disasters and epidemics, and a lack of accurate, up-to-date information can hinder the response of aid agencies when an emergency hits.  Now, a new partnership between, the American Red Cross, the British Red Cross, Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) and Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors without Borders (MSF) is helping to fill in gaps by mapping the world’s most vulnerable settlements.

Pete Masters, Missing Maps co-ordinator from MSF said: “In the age of Google Earth it is hard to imagine that there are communities in the world that still do not appear on any official maps. But when it comes to emergency response, maps are a vital for the effective direction and coordination of resources. Without maps we cannot assess areas of vulnerability or need.”

Recruiting volunteers

The project is already underway, with MSF and the Red Cross recruiting new volunteers to join HOT to help map settlements affected by the Ebola outbreak. These will enable teams on the ground to better respond to the spread of the disease, directing them towards at-risk communities and helping with contact tracing.

The main focus of the work, however, is to identify and map vulnerable areas before a crisis occurs, in order to have a head start, speeding up the response if the worst does happen.

Andrew Braye from the British Red Cross said: “The HOT community are creating the first accurate, open-source, freely available maps of vulnerable communities making it a key resource to humanitarian agencies. This digital volunteering allows people to actively contribute in a very real way to the work that humanitarian agencies do. Time and skill are the donations. It’s a real, collaborative effort and whether you have five minutes or five days to spare, all you need is a computer to contribute to the next map that will be printed by a humanitarian field team on the ground.”

These open-source maps are created in different ways, depending on location, access, security and resources. In Lubumbashi, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, digital volunteers first traced features such as roads, building and rivers from satellite imagery to create a digital ‘base map’. This base map was then printed off in sections (or ‘field papers’) by teams of local volunteers recruited from the Geography Department of the University of Lubumbashi who walked the areas traced, noting information such as road names, arrondissement designations and types of road or path.

Completed field papers were then scanned, uploaded, and the information added to the base map by digital volunteers (‘tagging’). The completed map was checked by an experienced mapper, or validator.

Kate Chapman from HOT said: "The impetus for the creation of Missing Maps is the same philosophy that led to the birth of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team. Maps are a vital tool in decision making, though even today they are often unavailable for legal or technical reasons, or even completely missing. It is an exciting time to bring organisations and individuals together in a large concerted effort to help assist humanitarian response by filling in holes in geographic information."

Launch event

The Missing Maps launch will be livestreamed on Friday 7th November from 6pm GMT and will feature presentations from representatives from three of the founding members on the aims and ideals of the project.  This will be followed by a panel discussion comprised of experts in the fields of mapping and open data on ‘Open-data, mapping for disasters and geospatial information: improving lives through digital activism’.

There will also be simultaneous launch events in the UK, USA, Canada, Indonesia, Germany and the Philippines.

At the London launch, our mappers will be tracing areas of South Sudan at the request of MSF field teams. These trace maps will be used in the coming weeks by MSF to conduct emergency mortality / nutrition assessments in parts of South Sudan where there has been recent conflict and harvest failure, in order to plan a medical response. Without the traces that the Missing Maps volunteers will make, MSF would not know what size of population to expect, where to find them, or even how accessible they are.

We will also be continuing to map areas of West Africa affected by the Ebola outbreak. This is urgently needed to improve contact tracing and carry out education and prevention programmes.

Notes to editors

For more information, interviews and images please contact Lucy Keating: LKeating@redcross.org.uk or 0207 877 7557. Out of hours 07710 391 703.

The British Red Cross helps people in crisis, whoever and wherever they are. We are part of a global voluntary network, responding to conflicts, natural disasters and individual emergencies.

We enable vulnerable people in the UK and abroad to prepare for and withstand emergencies in their own communities. And when the crisis is over, we help them to recover and move on with their lives. 

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