Online Army Helps Map Guinea's Ebola Outbreak

Hal Hodson | New Scientist | April 11, 2014

Health workers responding to an Ebola outbreak in Guinea had no maps to go on, so they turned to the internet for help

WHEN doctors working for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) arrived in the West African nation of Guinea last month to combat an outbreak of the deadly Ebola haemorrhagic fever, they found themselves working in an information vacuum. Accurate maps are crucial to pinpointing the source of the Ebola virus and preventing it from spreading. But the only maps in Guinea were topographic charts – useless for understanding population distribution. Desperate for information, they enlisted an online army to help.

MSF asked a digital mapping organisation called Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) to build them a map of Guéckédou, a city of around 250,000 people in southern Guinea, where the outbreak is concentrated. As of 31 March, online maps of Guéckédou were virtually non-existent, says Sylvie de Laborderie of cartONG, a mapping NGO that is working with MSF to coordinate the effort with HOT. "The map showed two roads maybe – nothing, nothing."

Within 12 hours of contacting the online group, Guéckédou's digital maps had exploded into life. Nearly 200 volunteers from around the world added 100,000 buildings based on satellite imagery of the area, including other nearby population centres. "It was amazing, incredible. I have no words to describe it. In less than 20 hours they mapped three cities," says de Laborderie...