In the year 2015, it is arguably digital connectivity that is having the most profound effects upon our individual lives and the way that we communicate. But beyond social media, viral videos and the constant stream of internet news and click-bait articles, connections are being quietly forged that can make a much larger impact in our ever-shrinking world.
Missing Maps is one such project, which is leveraging the power of the internet and crowdsourcing to make a positive difference in some of the world’s most at-risk communities.
While you could be forgiven for thinking that the whole world has been mapped already and is available online at the click of a button, the fact is that there remain large areas of the developing world which lack even basic maps. For local aid organisations and international humanitarian NGOs, this is a problem.
Without accurate and up-to-date maps it can be incredibly difficult to get aid and personnel to the areas where they are most needed, and in a crisis situation this can be the difference between life and death.
Missing Maps was founded last year by Medicins Sans Frontieres/ Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the British Red Cross, American Red Cross and the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap team (HOT). Its purpose is to harness the collective efforts of thousands of volunteers around the world to create comprehensive maps of some of the most at risk global communities.
So how does it work? Essentially, remote online volunteers (possibly you) trace satellite imagery using their own computer, marking on features such as buildings, roads and rivers. Once that part is complete, local volunteers in the community in question can add further specific details like street names and specific building types. This data is then available for free usage on the open-source OpenStreetMap platform, and can be used by aid organisations for disaster response, as well as by people who live in the area.
The fundamental idea is to map those areas that are most at risk of natural disasters, disease outbreaks, conflict and other dangers before they occur, so that an aid response can be made quickly and effectively. Current tasks within the project include mapping areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo to help MSF respond to disease outbreaks, parts of Haiti to aid local disaster response efforts, and areas of Tanzania to help develop flooding early warning systems.
How do I get involved?
The great thing about the Missing Maps project is that you can easily volunteer from the comfort of your own home, whether you’ve got five minutes or five hours to spare. All you need is a computer and an internet connection to get started (a mouse will make mapping easier, but is not essential).
Once you’re ready, head to the Missing Maps website to view a quick tutorial. You’ll be guided through the process to create a free account, then you can take part in your first mapping task, which will be a single map square within a wider area. Editing takes place using a simple browser-based editor which is intuitive to use, and many people find that tracing squares and lines over satellite imagery is a surprisingly relaxing and rewarding activity.
Because it’s a collaborative effort you don’t necessarily need to finish the task in one sitting, you can simply unlock it for others to work on. Likewise, whenever you find yourself at a loose end, you can head back to the website and help to complete other unfinished tasks.
Though you can do it at home, if you’re a social butterfly you might like to head to one of the regular ‘mapathons’ that take place in London and other cities. At these mapping parties, volunteers come together to map specific areas, and there’s usually plenty of free beer, pizza, guest talks and pleasant banter on offer too. Yet another chance to get connected with new people, while helping to connect a distant part of the world at the same time.
Do you know of any interesting and innovative initiatives that are helping people to get better connected? We’d love to hear about in the comments section below.
Written by Chris Glithero, TEDxSquareMile 2015 organising team volunteer