Most of us are at least a little freaked out by all the Ebola news these days. The majority of it is extremely overblown. A whole lot of it is downright panic-mongering. But one thing is for sure: the taste of fear we’re getting here in the developed world is nothing compared to what the poor folks in West Africa have been experiencing for some time now. If you’re like me you’d like to do something about Ebola instead of just worry about it which, let’s face it, doesn’t do anyone any good.
And in fact you can do something: you can draw maps. You heard right. The World Health Organization, Doctors Without Borders and a variety of NGO’s are on the ground in West Africa and ready to fight the disease door to door. Unfortunately they don’t know where a lot of those doors are — especially out in remote villages or in densely populated urban areas — because they don’t have have accurate maps.
Which is where the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team comes in. You may have heard of OpenStreetMap, they’re the organization which, with the help of lots of volunteer contributors, creates the data that companies like MapQuest and Foursquare use to generate their street maps. The process of making the maps is actually pretty simple. OpenStreetMap puts up satellite photos of the surface of the Earth, then ordinary users like you and me trace the streets, buildings, parks and bodies over water over them. Those traced lines become data that mapping apps like MapQuest use to show us where to go.
Right now the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team needs people to do this sort of tracing over satellite images of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. And just about any idiot can do that. I know because I happen to be an idiot and I’ve probably spent 10 or 12 hours this rainy week tracing buildings in Freetown. I’m not lying, it’s sorta tedious work, but I do it at night after the girls are in bed. I put on some music or call someone up on the phone and click, click, click. I’m sure the doctors on the ground don’t care how loud the music is in my office, they’re just happy they can find their way to some shantytown in Liberia where some poor man, woman or child needs help.
You can find out more about the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team by going here. My experience getting going was rather confusing as the links under “Get Involved” don’t necessarily take you where you want to go. You can subscribe for mailing lists (unnecessary if all you want to do is map) and download the Java version of the editing tool. That’s not necessary either since you can do it more easily with the online map editor. Someone really needs to streamline the process for volunteers.
If you want to get involved my suggestion is to simply go to www.OpenStreetMap.org, get an account and take the online tutorial, which is really quite simple. You’ll be able to edit your own neighborhood right away if you like. Note to Apple users like myself: to finish a line or a shape, you need to double click (a detail mysteriously left out of the tutorial). Once that’s done go here to get working on a task in Africa. Select “Edit with ID Editor” which is the online editing tool, and get mapping! You can finish a whole section of a grid or just edit a little and save your work. Every click helps and could potentially save a life, and that’s no exaggeration.
So turn that anxiety in action why don’t you? I know from the comments I get that I have an awful lot of readers with technical interests and talents. An hour a day tracing buildings and roads can help put the hammer down on a dangerous disease. See you (virtually) in Liberia! And now back to our regularly scheduled programming.