Sixty or so mapping enthusiasts gathered last Thursday in a hotel in central Paris for the Mapathon, an event organized by the Missing Maps project.
Founded by the American and the British Red Cross, Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, and Doctors Without Borders (MSF), Missing Maps lists its objective as mapping "the most vulnerable places in the developing world" to help the NGOs and individuals who "respond to the crises in those areas."
The aim of Thursday's event was to collectively map a sprawling area of Uganda using satellite images and data recorded by field teams, in order to facilitate MSF's activities in the area.
During the three-hour event, amateur cartographers were able to pinpoint "more than 4,000 buildings and nearly 170 kilometers (105 miles) of road," organizers said.
Plus de 60 personnes présentes chez @mozilla pr ce #mapathon ! Objectif cartographier une zone en #Ouganda pic.twitter.com/Pa9tSc2ihf
— MSF France (@MSF_france) 11 Février 2016
Two days before the Paris event, volunteers gathered in a former whiskey distillery in Glasgow, Scotland, to map residential areas and several streets of South Kivu province, in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The Missing Maps initiative saw the light of day in November 2014. Ever since, it has been providing aid workers and locals with invaluable maps to some of the most remote areas of the planet. The maps are created by volunteers, and are then checked by the team behind the project.
"The idea came to us following lengthy discussions among NGO officials," explained engineer Dale Kunce, one of the founders of the project. Kunce, a Red Cross worker based in the US, coordinates many of the ongoing online mapping initiatives.
"We'll soon have more than 7,000 volunteer contributors," Kunce told VICE News. "The project is really gathering momentum."
The way the project works is fairly simple. Responding to a request by an NGO with a need for a particular map, volunteers analyze satellite images — which are available online for free — to determine the location of buildings, streets and public landmarks. Images of buildings that have just been added to a map are streamed in real time.
Once the information has been verified and cross-referenced by teams on the ground, a free, unlicensed map is made available online.
"Field teams record street names, the function of various buildings — in short, anything you can't see from the sky," noted Kunce.
"More than 2 million buildings have already been mapped — that's 14 million people we've put on the map."
Many of the 1,504 map requests listed on the project website are for areas on the African continent, which has been left out of global mapping initiatives by huge companies like Google.
"Mapping the world is a very difficult mission," explained Kunce. "That's why we have several partners and are seeking even more."
A map showing drinking water wells in Ecuador, a map of all the villages that surrounding Indonesia's most active volcanoes, a map of West African roads and infrastructure used in the fight against Ebola: while the requests may vary tremendously, they all share the common aim of protecting locals.
Refugee camps are featured heavily on the requests list, including the Nyarugusu camp in Tanzania. 80,000 people have passed through the camp in the past few months, fleeing political instability in neighboring Burundi.
"Thursday's Mapathon will be very helpful to our missions," said Anne-Sophie Nardari, who oversees MSF's digital projects. "We had planned an HIV, tuberculosis and malaria screening campaign in the great lakes region in Uganda. But our problem was that we didn't know exactly how many people lived there," she said.
"Thanks to these new maps, we're able to multiply the number of houses that have been recorded by an average number of residents and better plan our intervention."
Mappers regularly share encouragement and breakthroughs on Twitter.
This day is not off to a good start but mapping buildings on my coffee break is strangely therapeutic. #missingmaps #hotosm
— Aga Kreglewska (@NomadicAga) 4 Février 2016
"It's a fun method that people like, and best of all, it helps us optimize our missions and therefore we will undoubtedly continue to use it," said Nardari, who hopes the initiative will attract a "regular community of contributors."
Kunce is hoping to bring on new partners. "It's a free platform, and we'd be thrilled to work with other NGOs, or even governments, if they have a need."
Twelve other Missing Maps Mapathons have been scheduled to take place by the end of March, in Europe and the US.
"Eighteen months ago, it was only a few isolated events. Now, there are so many in the world that I can't keep up with each and every single one," said Kunce.
"We are going to try and make the system even more accessible, so that people can update the maps whenever they have a spare moment," he said.
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Image via Wikimedia Commons / Craig Mayhew and Robert Simmon, NASA GSFC.