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How these Philly mapping technologists are helping tackle malaria eradication in Zimbabwe

Inside Azavea's Philly Mapathon.

The Philly Mapathon, hosted by Azavea. (Photo by Julie Lenard)

On the evening of May 4, over 75 Philadelphians stared intently at their laptops, intermittently looking up to see how many total edits had been made to OpenStreetMap. By the end of the night the total tally was over 9,000. What exactly are they doing and how does it help? Turns out you don’t have to be a geography expert to contribute to a worthy cause.

The Philly Mapathon is part of the The Missing Maps project, a partnership between Humanitarian OpenStreetMap, the American Red Cross, the British Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières-UK. As their motto says, “putting the world’s most vulnerable people on the map” or mapping areas in greater detail allows humanitarian organizations to make valuable decisions regarding relief efforts.

Here’s how the Missing Maps project works:

  1. “Armchair volunteers” (people from all over the world) trace satellite imagery into OpenStreetMap (such as last week’s Philly Mapathon, part of Philly Tech Week 2017 presented by Comcast).
  2. Community members volunteer to add local details (neighborhoods, street names, evacuation centers, etc.).
  3. Humanitarian organizations use the maps to plan risk reduction and disaster response activities.

“There are a lot of areas in the world without very good mapping. When a crisis breaks out, a lot of those places don’t have very good information for first responders or nonprofits who have resources but don’t know where to use them,” said Patrick Hammons of Esri and organizer of MaptimePHL.

“The way I always explain it to people is the difference between Google Maps and street maps,” said Dan Ford, community manager at Azavea, organizer of GeoPhilly and facilitator of the Philly Mapathon. “Street maps are so much more useful.”

That Thursday night, the mapathon contributed to NGOs such as the Clinton Global Health Initiative (CHAI) that are focusing on malaria eradication. “The specific task we’re supporting is more of a planning task. NGOs will get that data, put it in some models and run statistical and geospatial analyses to determine where they will optimize the malaria spray,” said Ford.

Midway through the Mapathon, Charlotte Dolenz, the malaria global manager for Southern Africa from CHAI spoke via Google Hangout to the crowd about the initiative to fully eliminate malaria. CHAI’s malaria strategy focuses on increasing the effectiveness of programs and optimizing the impact of available resources. Dolenz explains that the mapping Philadelphians are doing at the moment will allow CHAI to figure out how to target interventions to use limited resources much more effectively.

“To accept malaria at any level is unacceptable,” Dolenz said.

“You’re creating a mashup. You’re basically providing data that’s overlaid by a map that’s provided by someone else. The mashup is going to the public health organization,” said Labaron Palmer, a Ph.D. candidate in geography and urban studies at Temple University (and full disclosure, this reporter’s husband).

The best part is that you don’t need to go to a mapathon to contribute to the Missing Maps Project. Here’s how to start:

  1. Set up an account for OpenStreetMap.
  2. Select an area to map on OpenStreetMap Tasking Manager.
  3. Map the area.
  4. Save and upload your work.

“If you hear about something in the news and something strikes a chord in you, it’ll probably show up in OpenStreetMap tasking,” said Ford. “When you’re sitting in a coffee house and your friend is 10 minutes late, you could have time to map 10 buildings.”

Projects: Philly Tech Week

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