Africa: Emergency Mapping App Finds Vulnerable Faster

A mobile mapping app that draws on crowdsourced data to help humanitarian responders find people in remote areas is being rolled out by the medical charity Doctors without Borders (MSF – Médecins Sans Frontières).

MSF personnel told the MSF’s Scientific Days meeting last week in London, UK, that the app has helped them locate people even during urgent missions – but needs work to be more reliable.

Finding people fast in an emergency, whether an earthquake or disease outbreak, can make the difference between life and death. Better knowledge of West Africa could have helped tackle the 2014 Ebola epidemic faster, MSF has said.

Launched last year, MapSwipe gets citizens to put together detailed maps of areas where existing geographical information is basic. It draws on the open-source platform OpenStreetMap, and is part of the Missing Maps project designed by MSF and partners to ‘put vulnerable people on the map’.

The app works by supplying satellite imagery to volunteers who signal, through their phones, whether they recognise features, such as buildings, which are proxies for population. The app team aggregates this input to produce maps that reflect features on the ground more accurately.

Results from South Sudan and Madagascar show that about 90 per cent of the crowdsourced data agree with each other – an indication that citizen feedback is reliable, Benjamin Herfort, from Heidelberg University in Germany and member of the team, tells SciDev.Net.

But in some cases users disagree with each other, which is limiting the app’s ability to guide field staff.

“We will address this by giving better instructions and providing more image-based examples,” says Herfort.

Reliability is always a challenge and needs good tutorials, according to Patrick Meier, international consultant on humanitarian technologies. Meier has developed a similar tool, MicroMappers.

“What we did with MicroMappers is that any disagreements would be flagged for review,” Meier explains. “One can take a statistical approach and calculate areas of highest consensus.”

Herfort says MSF has already deployed MapSwipe in a few field sites, including urgent missions such as Aweil city in South Sudan. The app could effectively ‘shrink’ the area that needed detailed mapping from the initial site of 5800 sq km to the 690 sq km that proved to be inhabited.

Scoping the site was done even before responders reached the ground, Herfort says. “When MSF staff went to the field, the map was there.”

The initiative is valuable and should be supported according to Liz Hughes, chief executive of MapAction, a charity that provides mapping services in emergencies and publishes a field guide to humanitarian mapping.