Volunteers Make Maps to Save Lives

by Katelynn Fleming

Living in the U.S., where Google Maps can give driving directions to virtually anywhere, it can be hard to imagine that the whole world is not mapped out as thoroughly, but it is true. While a lack of road maps in isolated areas may seem merely inconvenient, it is actually dangerous in the aftermath of natural disasters. For example, according to the BBC, in 2015, flash floods in Malawi, an isolated country in southern Africa, killed two hundred people and displaced thousands. However, when a natural disaster strikes unmapped areas, it is difficult for relief organizations to find the people they are trying to help, even more so when the residents seek shelter in a location other than their houses. As a result, emergency supplies and relief workers from organizations like the Red Cross arrive late or not at all, making the death toll much higher than it would otherwise be, as it happened in Malawi in 2015.


Recently, there was a Map-a-thon held in London to address this issue; according to the BBC, hundreds of volunteers came together to use satellite images to map out isolated villages in Malawi. They identified roads and buildings from the images and traced them into OpenStreetMap, a wiki-style world map accessible to anyone with a smartphone. Meanwhile, other volunteers traveled to isolated villages within Malawi itself to find out which buildings were used as emergency shelters and mark them on the maps. In the future, relief workers will be able to find the service centers and people they seek to help, and to distribute relief supplies more efficiently and effectively.


This event is a great example of how technology is being used in a plentitude of ways to better the lives of people worldwide. If you wish to get involved, Missing Maps is a humanitarian organization that trains volunteers and provides structure to organize events just like this one. They are held frequently and worldwide; in fact, there is a lunchtime Map-a-thon online worldwide but based in Philadelphia on November 22 from 12 to1 p.m. You can find more information and events at: http://www.missingmaps.org/

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