SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Missing Maps is a special initiative founded by Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the American Red Cross, the British Red Cross and the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team. The Missing Maps project leverages crowdsourcing, pulling together volunteers from around the world to create maps of isolated and impoverished areas in the world’s poorest developing countries. Volunteers utilize OpenStreetMap — an open, free and crowd-sourced platform to help them map remote regions from satellite images. These maps then help save lives by providing international and local nonprofit groups (NGOs), and individuals in the field, with critical geographic data that allows them to uncover outlying and underserved populations and respond more efficiently to their humanitarian emergencies like disease outbreaks, war and conflict and natural disasters.
MSF and the Missing Maps Project
MSF provides medical care and emergency aid to people around the world, targeting people experiencing conflict, disease outbreaks and natural and human-made disasters, and those without access to health care in more than 70 countries. In 2022 alone, MSF field workers and health care professionals provided more than 300,000 emergency room consultations, treated almost 5,000 tuberculosis patients, performed surgery on more than 16,000 people in need and delivered more than 42,000 newborn babies. Along with critical medical care, MSF staff administered almost 3 million vaccines and provided outpatient consultations to more than 3 million people across the globe in 2022.
Targeting at-risk populations without easy access to medical care is the core mission of MSF, but identifying and accessing rural regions with vulnerable populations can be a challenge for field workers who have limited to no visibility of the situation on the ground. This is why the Missing Maps project is critical for MSF and countless other NGO efforts.
The Missing Maps Project: How and Why
The goal of the Missing Maps project is to utilize satellite images to create digital maps of rural, unmapped and ‘forgotten’ places around the world through crowdsourcing. This open, collaborative project allows anyone with access to a computer and the internet to join in the mission to map areas where aid organizations like MSF, American Red Cross and British Red Cross are trying to reach people at risk during disasters and crises.
There are three pillars of mapping for the Missing Maps Project:
1. Aid groups identify areas of interest with MapSwipe.
2. Volunteers remotely map and validate images using OpenStreetMap Tasking Manager.
3. Aid workers on the ground add details via field mapping.
Satellite Images with MapSwipe
MapSwipe is a free, crowdsourced mobile application that provides volunteers with satellite images from around the world. It originated in 2016 to support the Missing Maps project and crowdsource the review of satellite imagery to identify locations of interest, compare images of the same location at two different times to see if there have been changes, and validate the accuracy of existing mapped data. Aid organizations like MSF will identify areas of interest via MapSwipe and share those images with the Missing Maps project so volunteers can find places that aid organizations are looking for, like buildings or communities. Once aid organizations approve areas, the areas go to the OpenStreetMap Tasking Manager.
Transform Images into Maps With OpenStreet Maps Tasking Manager
Through the OpenStreetMap Tasking Manager, remote volunteers transform satellite images into meaningful maps. The Tasking Manager allows aid groups to break down large maps into smaller tasks, or missions, for remote volunteer mappers. This tool shows what satellite images require mapping, what mapped areas require review and validation for quality assurance and which areas have reached completion and can go to the field.
Utilizing the OpenStreetMap Tasking Manager allows aid groups to effectively distribute many tasks to virtual mappers working on the Missing Maps project and allows aid groups and organizers to monitor the progress of various mapping projects. Projects are typically created based on targeted regions of need — those that natural disasters or disease outbreaks affect — and then broken down into manageable missions for virtual mappers to remotely map. Virtual mappers focus on identifying buildings and streets and outlining these structures on satellite images for further validation. These outlined images transform satellite images into useful maps that are easy to share with aid workers on the ground.
Field Mapping on the Ground
Once virtual mappers complete these projects, they share the final product with aid workers in the field to plan for disaster response and other life-saving activities. Field mapping fine-tunes the remote maps provided. Aid workers on the ground can add details, like names of buildings and points of interest that are unidentifiable from satellite images alone. That said, the remote mapping greatly speeds up the entire process. Field mapping alone takes significant time and human and financial resources. Having remote mappers go in first to provide a rough draft of the area allows aid workers to finalize map details more easily and effectively through field mapping.
Since 2014, more than 169,000 remote mappers have made a significant impact on aid workers, contributing more than 97 million edits and identifying more than 59 million buildings to existing maps through the OpenStreetMap Tasking Manager.
Become a Virtual Mapper
The mapping process in the OpenStreetMap Tasking Manager is straightforward. Anyone around the world with a device and internet access can sign up, create an account and get started. If one has access to a Mapathon event like the one that MSF hosted virtually, this is a great way to begin. But, if one can not attend these events, the OpenStreetMap Tasking Manager site has several resources for new remote mappers under the “Learn” section of its website, including manuals and videos.
Once one has learned the ropes and is comfortable viewing satellite images and identifying buildings, structures and roads, one can navigate to the “Explore Projects” section and find a project with a mission. Urgent tasks are sorted at the top and coincide with recent natural disasters or disease outbreaks.
The Importance of Mapping
At the time of the November 14, 2023, virtual mapping event that MSF hosted, a series of devastating earthquakes had hit a month earlier in the Herat province of Afghanistan — one of the poorest countries in the world. Aid groups desperately needed refined maps of the area to deliver critical medical care and emergency response supplies quickly and effectively to the impacted regions. Updated maps allow field workers to know if pre-existing buildings are still standing and if previously accessible streets have become inaccessible due to the effects of earthquakes and aftershocks. The updated maps also help to identify remote and rural towns and villages affected by natural disasters that disaster relief groups may have not identified without the use of satellite imagery.
Lauren Bateman, the Remote Coordinator for the IFRC Information Management Team for Cyclone Idai, one of the worst tropical cyclones to affect Africa and the Southern Hemisphere, recalls on the Missing Maps website the impact accurate maps had on her team’s efforts. “In the early days of the Cyclone Idai response, IFRC was looking for detailed maps to get a sense of the scale of the flooding, which were also used for search and rescue operations. Later on, we had requests to identify where certain buildings, such as health centers or hospitals, were located so our health team could assess the damage and medical needs of patients.”
The Missing Maps project needs people’s help to put the world’s most vulnerable communities on the map. Through crowdsourcing and collaboration, the global community can assist the humanitarian organizations that provide life-saving care to those disasters and crises impacted. The Missing Maps project allows people to use their laptops to help save lives, one map at a time.
– Ann-Jinette Hess