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When MSF teams arrive in a disaster area, they face many challenges. One of the difficulties that we do not think about is the lack of maps listing relevant information, such as roads, drinking water points or important buildings. However, to provide an appropriate and effective response, MSF teams need accurate maps.
    Responding to emergencies effectively: mapping intervention areas

    According to Juan José Arévalo, coordinator of MSF's Geographic Information Systems (GIS), maps are one of the best tools to fight (and understand) epidemics: a look at a map can provide much more than just reading epidemiological data in a table. They are also vital to vaccination campaigns, as they confirm the location of roads and, most importantly, how they can be travelled. "Some roads are only accessible by motorcycle, others by car and sometimes some areas are only accessible by boat," explains Mr. Arévalo.

    Within MSF, the Geographic Information System (GIS) unit has now become an important tool for decision-making, planning, communication and operational support for the entire movement. Listing the combination of several sources of information on a single map allows teams to assess the extent of the emergency, plan logistical needs, optimise epidemiological surveillance, and ensure coordination with other organisations.

    Recent examples of such emergencies include Cyclone Idai in southern Africa, where detailed maps had to be provided quickly to logisticians and epidemiologists, or the Democratic Republic of Congo, with a sudden outbreak of Ebola that required rapid identification of affected areas.

    Cyclone Idai: the essential role of maps

    The Missing Maps Project

    To overcome the lack of maps, several humanitarian organisations, including MSF, and the OpenStreetMap (OSM) humanitarian team, decided to create Missing Maps in 2014.

    Missing Maps is a humanitarian project that proactively maps areas of the world vulnerable to natural disasters, conflicts and epidemics. 

    The main objective of the initiative is to provide international NGOs with up-to-date maps and data to better respond to crisis-affected areas, such as access roads to villages and health care centres.
    Missing Maps is a large community of volunteers around the world who use Open Street Map, an open and free topographic database, built collectively by these volunteers, with validation and quality control procedures. The work is done from an aerial picture or a satellite image and buildings, rivers, and anything needed is drawn. Once the entity has been vectorised, its detailed attributes ("commercial area", "village", "paved road", etc.) are registered.

    GIS teams work very closely with the Missing Maps community, which has had an incredible impact on the work of the GIS unit, especially in times of crisis, when rapid response is very important.

    What is a mapathon?

    A mapathon is a collective mapping workshop: a group of volunteers meet for 3 hours to enrich the mapping of a defined area.

    Mapathons are very simple and accessible to beginners: draw roads, rivers, or building contours, without further detail.

    Participants map from aerial pictures identifying as many features as possible. These data are validated by experienced OSM users. Finally, GIS teams in the field add further details (type of building, quality of the road, etc.).

    In this way, what was a satellite image without additional information becomes a complete map of the region, thanks to the help of volunteers.  

    In total, according to the Missing Maps website, nearly 80,000 people have helped to locate about 40 million buildings and more than one million kilometres of roads and paths. 

    In short, anyone can participate in world mapping with Open StreetMap, with a computer and an internet connection. Simply create an account on OpenStreetMap.

    Come and contribute: participate to the mapathons organised by MSF Luxembourg

    Would you like to get directly involved in MSF's humanitarian response? Then join us at the mapathons organised throughout the year.