Tuesday, March 30, 2021

American Red Cross Missing Maps Program

 By: Medha Gaddam, Communications Volunteer

In the fall of 2019, Hurricane Dorian, a category 5 Atlantic hurricane and the most intense tropical storm in history to hit the Bahamas, left vast devastation behind. Knocking out power, telecommunications, and water, the disaster destroyed around 13,000 homes, leaving approximately 70,000 people homeless. 

Exacerbating the situation, many areas were not well mapped out. This left first responders helpless in some cases as they did not know the original number of buildings and roads to accurately analyze the true extent of the damage. After an urgent call, around 107 mappers mapped 9,000 buildings and 16,000 roads in five days through the Missing Maps initiative. Consequently, first responders were able to scope the environment and carry out response measures effectively. This is just one example of the impact the Missing Maps program has had on preparedness efforts for vulnerable communities. 

“The original inspiration for the Missing Maps program was the work done by mapping volunteers after the Haiti earthquake in 2010”, says Rachel Levine, the Missing Maps Program Coordinator. 


When first responders are not aware of where people live or where buildings and other infrastructure are located, it is impossible to gauge the impact of disasters and help citizens as effectively as possible. 


In 2014, the Missing Maps partnership was created to mend these gaps by mapping the world’s vulnerable communities. 

“The founding members of this program are the American Red Cross, the British Red Cross, Doctors without Borders, and Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT). [They] thought well, what if we didn’t have to do that data scramble? What if we worked with communities early, and supported preparedness programming?” 

Six years later, Rachel believes that the biggest change in the program is an immense increase in the number of volunteers and knowledge.


Missing Maps is a collective. Our founding members are now joined by about 15 other NGO’s, and each organization contributes some magic that helps us reach our shared goals.


Art Shaw, Partnership Officer for the American Red Cross of the National Capital & Greater Chesapeake Region explains that the mission of Missing Maps is, “to create digital maps that are up-to-date so that either before, during, or after a disaster, people have an idea of where the roads are, where the buildings are, and how many people are living in each building”. 

Volunteers for Missing Maps range from young students starting as new mappers, progressing into event leads. These volunteers do their work through Open Street Map (OSM). 

“[Open Street Map] is an open-source environment where you go in and mark buildings, streams, and roads in a certain area. It works its way down to someone who lives in the village, who can pull up the information that the volunteers saved. They can then go door to door and put addresses on the buildings, tell us how many people lived in the buildings, etc.” states Art. 

Mapping can be done individually or in groups through events called mapathons. Thus far, over 1500 mapathon events have been conducted in 65 countries around the world. The most recent Missing Maps event in our local region was held on January 19, 2021. It consisted of 3 Mapathon Sessions with participants from countries around the world including America, EMEA, and APAC/Japan. 

“[It] is something we offer our corporate clients to get virtually engaged with Red Cross, and with McAfee, we did three programs in one day, which is unusual!” 

There were 295 attendees who by the end, had mapped 3,830 buildings - a record number for one day. 

Another case where Missing Maps aided affected communities in recovering was in 2014, after the devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan. Around 1,600 mappers worked to map these areas on OSM, resulting in 4.7 million edits to the system. However, areas change with time and multiple homes, roads, and other infrastructure were left unmapped. Therefore, Missing Maps volunteers visited Leyte and Tacloban (two communities in the Philippines) in November of that year and worked to map government buildings, clinics, and other essential areas in the islands. The villages had changed once again three years later, when volunteers visualized the islands using UAVs (drones), processed the images using OpenDroneMap (ODM), and finally uploaded them into OSM. 

In 2017, when Hurricane Maria - the worst storm in 80 years - hit Puerto Rico, it resulted in major damage to the infrastructure of the island. 

Art explains, “The coast, the big cities, and the resorts were all mapped very well. However, the interiors of the island were not mapped at all. Red Cross was able to identify where cell phone service was knocked out by using OSM data, and we were able to set up satellite dishes as well as create mobile hotspots in those places. Citizens were then able to call their relatives and loved ones to let them know that they were safe.” 


Today, the Missing Maps initiative has grown to 72,000 volunteers, who over the years have mapped a total of 37 million buildings and around 1 million km of roads in OSM. 


The most recent organizations to join the effort are the German Red Cross and CROWD2MAP Tanzania. 

When asked about her personal experience as the Missing Maps Program Coordinator and her thoughts as a volunteer, Rachel says, “I started with the American Red Cross as a volunteer mapper before the Missing Maps project was founded. When I returned to the DC area after grad school, the American Red Cross had started the project more formally and I joined the GIS team to support. So I would say the project had had a big impact on me personally! To anyone looking to get involved in an idea they find interesting, I highly recommend volunteering! Most projects have opportunities for volunteers to make real impact, and it’s a great learning opportunity. I’m particularly inspired by our young people volunteers. They have really made this project their own and I love watching them progress from new mapper to event leads!” 

You can sign up to volunteer for Missing Maps at www.missingmaps.org

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