Crowdsource mapping aids Ebola fight in West Africa

Online volunteers from more than 80 countries around the world are participating in the fight against the deadly Ebola virus disease, which has killed over 2,400 people in West Africa.

Aid workers from agencies such as the American Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) are at the front in the war against Ebola. But they depend on volunteers from the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) to map the affected region, especially the worst-hit countries—Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.

The Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, an offshoot of the OpenStreetMap project, works both remotely and physically in countries to assist in the collection of geographic data, usage of the information and the training of volunteers in OpenStreetMap, a collaborative initiative aimed at creating a free, editable map of the world.

“We have strong ties with MSF and the Red Cross, who are very actively tackling the Ebola epidemic, and they have taken a huge interest in our work, not only requesting map data from us, but helping us to organize community mapping efforts to meet their needs,” said HOT board member Harry Wood, in email.

OpenStreetMap is a free online tool that lets users create and trace map elements from various sources including manual surveys, GPS data and aerial photography. The resulting crowdsourced data is available under the Open Database License .

Aid agencies use the maps for various purposes, to get around and to plan the movement and positioning of medical teams and resources. More advanced uses include geo-analysis—plotting the spread of disease and how that relates to the location of population centers.

“We’re making a map of the world. It’s a global collaboration. People coming together over the internet to build something great,” Wood said.

In West Africa, the aid organizations tackling the Ebola outbreak need maps, “but this is a part of the world where nobody has ever mapped things in great detail,” Wood said. “At least they certainly have not made the results available for free. We have the means to do this, with a large community of volunteer mappers.”

The mapping effort is continuing to focus on West Africa, since the region affected by Ebola is growing larger. However, the HOT project plans to refocus at some point, to map areas of the developing world in advance of a crisis, as a disaster preparedness exercise, Wood said.

HOT’s first assignment was in January 2010 when the volunteers mapped Port-au-Prince after the Haiti earthquake. OpenStreetMap now has more than a million registered volunteers from around the world.

“It costs nothing but time, and it doesn’t even need to cost much of that,” Wood said, stressing that volunteers can spend as much or as little time as they want on the project. What’s more, volunteers can be anywhere in the world, using whatever sources they can find to help them map data in the specific area they are working on.

“HOT works to make our mapping efforts more coordinated in response to crises, although actually anyone can edit the map at any time, and so we can start responding to new crisis as soon as it hits the news,” Wood said.

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