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The global effort putting the world’s most vulnerable people on the map

Darker areas lack accurate maps. (Credit:

In developed countries, we frequently take for granted that Google and other platforms have pulled data from satellite photography and GPS to plot all the roads, building and corners that make up our surroundings. But the vast majority of the developing world has, until recently, remained predominantly unmapped. The Missing Maps project is now filling in these gaps, for some of the world’s most vulnerable human populations in the farthest corners of the globe.

The Missing Maps project, launched in 2014, is a collaboration by the American and British Red Cross, the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team and Doctors Without Borders to put 20 million at-risk people on the map in two years. Using OpenStreetMap as a platform, Missing Maps aims to fill in the world’s “missing maps” before the next crisis arrives, so that detailed maps are available and ready for emergency responders.

Although the scope of the project is vast, the process is rather simple. The first step is to plug satellite images into the free mapping software OpenStreetMap. Volunteers then log in remotely, from anywhere around the world, and trace the outlines of buildings, roads, parks and rivers over the satellite image.

Then, the map is printed out and given to volunteers who are located in the city being mapped. These volunteers each take a section of the map, head out with a pencil and log the names of their local roads and buildings. The completed maps uploaded onto OpenStreetMap, resulting in an open source city map that is free for anyone, anywhere to use or update.

The Guardian has described the effort as nothing less than a human genome project for the world’s cities.

Missing Map’s effort to map human settlements in developing countries is not the first of its kind. Google launched a MapMaker program in 2011, with the goal to improve Google’s maps for developing countries and other areas where detailed maps are not available. Like Missing Maps, Google’s program gets cartographic help from ordinary citizens, according to Wired, and operates in more than 220 countries.

Another related effort is by one of the founding collaborators of the Missing Maps project, Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, whose impressive mapping work in response to crises around the world served as the foundation for Missing Maps.

But the Missing Maps project is the only preemptive effort to map the places around the world where the most vulnerable people live. Instead of responding to a natural disaster or disease epidemic, regions vulnerable to these crises are identified and mapped before they happen. Then, when one occurs, locals and aid responders can start using the maps to better navigate these regions, saving valuable resources, time and lives.

One example, as outlined by Open Source, is in the implementation of the project in Cyahinda, Rwanda. In this agricultural region, people face challenges with sanitation, environmental degradation, landslides and drought. The Rwanda Red Cross and American Red Cross collaborated to map the wide region of scattered villages and dirt roads. With the data from these maps, residents were able to look at the distribution of mudslides to decide where to safely build their homes, schools and churches.

Since 2014, Missing Maps has put 8.5 million people on the map. In the effort to reach their goal of 20 million, the Red Cross and other partners have been hosting mapping events, called Map-A-Thons, to recruit and teach more volunteers how to use the OpenStreetMap software.

Volunteers take part in a map-a-thon at the University of Washington in Seattle Jan. 17, 2016. (Credit: Colin Downey/Red Cross)

Volunteers take part in a Map-A-Thon at the University of Washington in Seattle Jan. 17, 2016. (Credit: Colin Downey/Red Cross)

“I think [Map-A-Thons] give it more of a humanitarian perspective,” said Krista Schilling, regional international services program manager for the Red Cross. “You can read a paragraph about how to do it, but it doesn’t feel the same as when you sit with a room full of people and actually watch the map get developed.”

The Missing Maps project will ultimately need to recruit the biggest team of digital humanitarian volunteers ever conceived, according to The Guardian; so far, according to Krista Schilling, Missing Maps has had more than 5,000 remote volunteers.

The crucial aspect of Missing Maps that has made the project feasible is that the work can be done from volunteers remotely, from anywhere, on their own computers. And since OpenStreetMap is an open, free source of geographic data that can be edited by anyone with a username, the scope of the project is limitless.


About Author

Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email or see her latest work at