Missing Maps is 5

When I first realised the need for maps in Tanzania 4 years ago and started Crowd2Map I had not heard of Missing Maps. However about 3 months in I came across the very active and friendly London group which I have been attending fortnightly ever since, and their support and advice has been invaluable.  This week Missing Maps turned 5, a time of reflection for the founders including Ivan Gayton.

He originally envisioned it as a finite endeavour that shouldn’t last more than 4 years, and states “The idea was: what if instead of relying on media coverage of crises to generate volunteer engagement to map after disasters had already struck, we used the power of humanitarian movements to build a community to map the homes of vulnerable people before disasters?

In Haiti in 2010, using OpenStreetMap data was an interesting new idea, practiced by a couple of innovators alongside the “proper, professional GIS” being done by the cluster coordination. By the time Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in 2013, OpenStreetMap was at least co-equal with the closed data. In the West African Ebola outbreak in 2014 open, community-generated map data was unquestionably the dominant source of geographical information. Open map data is now the default for humanitarian and crisis response.

So why didn’t we declare victory and move on? Why do we still need the Missing Maps? Because what I had originally seen as success turned out to be no more than a starting point. I had failed to anticipate the range of uses for open map data. I was focused on patient origins and spatial epidemiology—still critically important but not the only impactful use—and did not realize the importance and possibilities of locally-driven field mapping. The remote volunteering and mapathons, which attracted a startlingly diverse and extraordinarily passionate volunteer community, have now largely accomplished the original goal of creating the base-map vector features in some places. There’s more to be done, to be sure, but the key gap in many places is no longer digitization, its local knowledge and ways to operationalize the data.

The ultimate goal of humanitarian action is to save life, alleviate suffering, and restore dignity. Mappers cannot claim to save lives directly; if we are to have an impact it is by facilitating those who are saving lives (or helping themselves). To reach its full potential, the Missing Maps must not only provide basemap data, but to enrich them with local knowledge and see that the maps are put to use.

I now see three phases of Missing Maps action:

1) Create a base layer of vector data across the most vulnerable areas of the globe using digital volunteers

2) Infuse local knowledge into the map using field mapping campaigns in collaboration with local people (the most critical local knowledge being local place-names, landmarks, and administrative divisions—without which we cannot disambiguate locations described by people in their own words).

3) Actively partner with people working to save lives, alleviate suffering, and restore dignity to make them more effective using our data, skills, and knowledge.

The Missing Maps has basically succeeded at phase one in many places. Phase two is in progress; many of us are increasingly engaged in work with local communities to add the local information to the map that makes it useful and relevant to people working in these contexts. Phase three has, in my view, not yet even properly begun. Sure, a few well-funded agencies have better GIS support as a result of the Missing Maps, and there are sporadic uses of Missing Maps data arising spontaneously here and there throughout the humanitarian field, but humanitarian action and crisis response are still nowhere near achieving the additional effectiveness that a truly inclusive global community of mapping practice could provide.

For example, in the current Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, patient origins are still poorly understood. This is not even to speak of the colossal gap in disease surveillance throughout the low-income world, the lack of accurate demographic data for public health and services, the desperate lack of transparency in land titles, or the difficulty in navigating the more or less informal settlements that one-quarter of humanity live in. The Missing Maps should be saving and improving many more lives. It can do so once we are working directly with people on the front lines, understanding their problems and constraints, and working with them to operationalize map data.

There are hundreds of thousands of health centres in Africa awaiting the support needed to properly understand their patients’ origins and act upon them to reduce disease burdens. There are aid agencies, civil servants, private businesses, taxi drivers, public health ministries, environmental activists, scientists, farmers, and pizza delivery bicyclists waiting for our help (in some cases whether they know it or not). The Missing Maps must become much more than a digital volunteer community, it must become an inclusive global movement to empower all of the things that save and improve lives.

Finally, maps themselves can in some small way contribute to human dignity. To be on a map is to be acknowledged, is to be known, is to be recognised, is to be counted. It is for the world to know that you are there and that you have needs, that you have rights, and that you must not be forgotten or passed over. This requires more than a nice map on the Web made by digital volunteers and aid agencies, it requires working together with the inhabitants of the previously neglected places in the world. Five years in, the Missing Maps has seen success beyond our wildest dreams. But it turns out the work is just beginning, and we must go beyond our original digital volunteering mandate to achieve our full potential. Let’s get to it, shall we?”

Thank you to Ivan for expressing the rationale behind Crowd2Map so clearly.  We want to partner with anyone interested in mapping for development in Tanzania and beyond – so if you any suggestions please do get in touch. 

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