Mapping the 'unmapped' for aid delivery


Jenny Lei Ravelo

If you were tasked to determine the logistics around delivering medical aid in a remote mountainous area with no reliable map that can be used as point of reference, what would you do?

This was the problem Médecins Sans Frontières faced a few months ago, when it wanted to conduct an emergency mortality and nutritional assessment in Mading, South Sudan. The assessment unit had never been there and had no access to a detailed map — until MSF teamed up with the American Red Cross, British Red Cross and the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, which is known for mapping crisis-hit areas such as in Haiti following the devastating earthquake in 2010. By November 2014, the team had been able to map the area remotely in London.

“By tracing the road networks, the road buildings and the residential areas from satellite imagery, we were able to give them what’s called AOIs or areas of interest,” MSF’s Peter Masters told Devex, explaining that the map was able to indicate where the residential areas are and how many houses are located between specific coordinates, which helped the assessment team “plan their assessments and see what people [who] live there need.”

Masters was part of the team that mapped the area. Mapping Mading is one of the efforts done under a fairly new initiative that involves MSF called Missing Maps, for which Masters is the project coordinator for the organization’s U.K. arm.

There remain a considerable number of remote areas, particularly in developing countries, that are “unmapped.” The project aims to get a map of these areas so that aid organizations could not only have something to refer to in case they need to respond to a disaster but also be able to identify hot spots for potential emergencies, such as cholera outbreaks, and prepare accordingly.

But the project also targets to promote collaboration between different aid groups and actors in the development industry, which may be working in similar areas in any given country, and prevent wasting resources and duplicating work already done.

The maps are available to anyone who needs them, but Masters said joining the partnership allows organizations to tap into the volunteer base already built to do remote mapping. He was quick to clarify, however, that the project is not “a service where you become a member and you request.”

“You can tap into kind of the reservoir of volunteers who are already there, can seek support and guidance on work flow, and how to do field mapping and tracing — all the stuff necessary to make these things happen,” the project coordinator explained. “We are developing together, and anyone who is a member can completely not only have those things, but once they use them and improve them, they reach the part where everybody can benefit. For example, some may know a better way of mapping slums, and then they share it, every organization working in slums will benefit from that.”

The team is currently involved in a number of mapping projects, including in the region of Bangassou in the Central African Republic where MSF plans to increase its support for primary health care and other periphery health centers, and in the Salamat region in Chad where there are reportedly high levels of malaria.

How it works        

While the Mading project was done remotely, mapping an area usually involves a five-point process: capture satellite images, trace, collect on-the-ground data, input data into the map and then establish where the administrative areas are, or what Masters referred to as “where people describe the kind of areas they are in, however their city or town is organized.”

This is what happened in Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the team tapped local volunteers to go on the ground and verify the tracing’s accuracy.

While there were no crises in Lubumbashi, the team knew it was highly at risk for cholera. By collaborating with different actors and using crowdsourced information, the team was able to map the area. In the event that an outbreak does occur, responding organizations would then be able to geolocate patients easily on the map and find hot spots.

How then can accuracy and quality be ensured when mapping is done remotely, such as in Mading? Masters noted that hardly anyone in the team that mapped the area had ever been to South Sudan. In addition, the houses in Mading did not look like those in the U.K.

“They are round and small, so confusing them with trees and rocks is very easy,” he said. “But it’s important that the quality of tracing is good, for we don’t want the organization to go in a village of 50 houses and finding 50 rocks — it’s a waste of helicopter journey.”

This is when the expertise of an experience mapper comes in, and why it is crucial for a mapping team to have one. An experienced mapper, according to Masters, will be able to spot the difference, even if he had never been in the area. While the project already has some experienced mappers on the board, it is “continuing to develop [expertise] to make sure people see the difference and catch those important details.”

Masters cautioned that the map is only meant to provide information detailed enough for instance for public health coverage and help organizations prepare. While this means identifying road and water networks and building and residential areas, names of establishments and hospitals aren’t indicated. If they wish, people can input these types of information to Open Street Map, the project coordinator said.

The team is currently seeking to forge more partnerships, not just with large international nongovernmental organizations, but also with small and midsized groups, even those based locally, and academic institutions.

And then of course, there is the subject of funding.

“From the MSF side, we don’t want the mapping to take any funds from our normal funding,” Masters explained. “So we’re looking for funders too.”