Finding the ‘invisible’ millions who are not on maps
“There are about two billion people in the world who do not appear on a suitable map,” says Ivan Gayton of the OpenStreetMap humanitarian agency.
“It’s shameful that we – as cartographers of the world – don’t care enough to even know where they are. People live and die without appearing in any database.”
Known as “Wikipedia for maps”, anyone can download OpenStreetMap and edit it.
“It’s an extraordinary situation in which anyone could ruin it, anyone can add it to it, but what we’ve finished is a map which is the most up-to-date in some places.”
According to Gayton, it is the most complete and accurate map for many parts of the world, especially in rural Africa, where insufficient investment means, outside the cities, there are often blank pages where millions live.
As we sit in Rwanda, Gayton nods in the distance: “It is not very far from here, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, just across the border, where information stops but it is not as if people did not live there, simply they are not registered. “
So why is it important?
Gayton says it can be a matter of life or death. “If you catch an outbreak of disease like Ebola or the new coronavirus, tracing contacts is the way epidemics stop. It’s not the treatment, it’s the public health and the map data that makes it possible.”
He worked on mapping efforts during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014-15 and found that the lack of data caused critical problems in locating disease hotspots.
“If you come to a healthcare facility anywhere in the world with a communicable disease, they will ask you where you come from. In the low-income world you don’t always have a system to describe that position.”
This is something that Liz Hughes, Map Action CEO, is also passionate about. His organization helps provide maps for aid agencies and governments, using both technology and volunteers.
Cite examples such as floods, where updated maps are urgently needed. “We can understand where the most critical need lies, and therefore aid can be better targeted in a natural disaster or an epidemic situation.”
Big tech companies have invested huge sums in their mapping efforts, but Ivan Gayton says there is an obvious chasm in terms of priorities.
“There isn’t much commercial incentive for Google to identify the closest Starbucks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” he says.
Maps are the building blocks of economic development. Without accurate maps it is not only navigation from A to B that can be difficult: the essential tasks of proper planning for homes and infrastructures can be impossible.
World Bank Edward Anderson has worked on mapping efforts over the past decade, first in the Pacific and now in Africa. He says that traditionally, maps have been made nationally and it may take years between a survey and the production and application of the map.
“Cities are particularly problematic, because we are seeing very rapid urbanization and the fastest rate of unplanned urbanization in history. About 80% of the growth in urban areas is unplanned and 70% of new residents in city is entering the slums.
“Very often the maps that planners must use are 10 years old.”
This means, he says, that the authorities are always playing along.
One of those who is capitalizing on the need to map is the Tanzanian entrepreneur Freddie Mbuya. Mining companies pay him to map their land using drones. This type of detailed mapping must be performed frequently, often in areas that are difficult to reach.
He says global tech companies do not have the incentive to map locally to rural Africa, which would take a lot of time and money.
“Google and Apple maps don’t distinguish between a good road and a bad road – but it’s so important,” he says.
Mbuya adds that land titration is also crucial for development.
“The land is the key to fighting poverty. But how can we do it if we don’t know where our land is? If the land isn’t named, we can’t exploit the value of our land. Much of my family land has been lost or it is not developing – we need the land to be examined and formalized … so we can go to the bank and get a loan with a piece of paper that says I own this land. ”
More business technology
Scottish geographer Paul Georgie is the founder of the Geo Geo mapping company.
He says in today’s digital society, not being on a map is like being invisible. “Even just having your home or hut or village on a map, with associated roads, is vital for the government to help with planning.”
He worked on a project in Tanzania to create energy networks in remote communities.
“We downloaded rough satellite images and took them to the villages. The maps speak a universal language and people have been able to label the images. Formalizing this, mapping it and making it tangible gives people a wider voice around the world. “
Volunteers from all over the world also label and fill in the blanks.
Liz Hughes of Map Action explains: “In places like Sierra Leone, while we were working on Ebola’s answer, we couldn’t even find maps to show where the roads were, and from there the Missing Maps were born.”
Once a month in cities like London and New York, fans gather to work on these maps, using open data and voluntary contributions to help fill in the blanks online.
Map Action also works to train volunteers on the spot.
“We train people to know what might be needed on the ground. An example would be Ebola in Sierra Leone. We worked with the UK health consultant to figure out where it would be best to put water points for hand washing.” , says Hughes.
Volunteers are used in community projects across Africa, including in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s rapidly urbanizing shopping center.
Here students volunteer for a project called Ramani Huria map using simple smartphone apps in the many unplanned areas where drainage and flooding are frequent and deadly problems. These help local authorities track down where cholera outbreaks can occur in clusters.
Edward Anderson of the World Bank says community-driven mapping provides immediate valuable information.
“We need to update the data on an annual or quarterly basis, from bottom to top. Almost all urban adults now have access to a smartphone. So we can use this community-collected data to really update our knowledge of informal areas.
“They are not planned, but clearly people know their names on the streets and where the water points and common toilets are, they are not on any map.”
But Ivan Gayton acknowledges that the public health argument for a complete mapping does not convince everyone. It will be, he says, an economic incentive that conquers the cynics.
“The most compelling case for the average person is to take a pizza or order a taxi. My belief is that, because technology allows people not to have to spend half a day training where their driver is, they will. People want to do business. “