Open-Source Mapping The World's Most Vulnerable Regions Will Save Lives

Sam Sturgis | CityLab | December 2, 2014

Urgent humanitarian aid missions are slowed when cities are largely unmapped. Missing Maps aims to change that with the help of volunteer cartographers and local residents.

Responding to a humanitarian crisis is a race against the clock. Following a major natural disaster—last year's typhoon in the Philippines for example, or the 2010 earthquake in Haiti—displaced populations are often in immediate need of food, shelter, and medical assistance. Quickly transporting items and people between two points of a city is essential.

For years, however, the ability of NGOs to swiftly save lives has been slowed by a dearth in accurate mapping. Urban landscapes in many parts of the developing world are undergoing remarkable change, notably due to informal housing structures and accelerating migration. Yet mapping these burgeoning cities has been slow. In turn, humanitarians navigating these crisis zones, perhaps delivering a crucial box of IVs to a local hospital ward, have been without reliable layouts of the land. But a global mapping project is hoping to correct this.

Using OpenStreetMap, a popular open-source data tool, European and American volunteers are creating maps for humanitarian agencies to use in the field. The initiative is called Missing Maps, and was launched in November by a collection of relief agencies, including the American Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders. And while mapping Lulimba, a village in Eastern Congo, may sound difficult, it's actually pretty easy...