Do Your Bit(map)

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, 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.

19 thoughts on “Do Your Bit(map)”

  1. This is really cool, Joe. Thanks for sharing it. It’s nice to know not everyone is falling prey to fear-mongering and mass-hysteria.

    1. I try not to, Gris! I’m a worrier by instinct but even more than that a deep, deep skeptic of the media. There’s an audience feeding frenzy going on right now and they’ll say just about anything to get people to tune in. A pox on all their houses I say!

      Have fun mapping!

      – Joe

  2. That sounds really cool! (considering I have read about that being part of the problem. The other problem being fear and mistrust!)
    I’ve played the Cancer Research UK crowd-sourcing games which are pretty interesting, and apparently helpful.
    The latest game. It boils down to looking evaluating cell slides and checking if the cell types are there or not. Right now they are focusing on bladder cancer and distinguishing which treatment will work best with the patient based on how the cells react to the dye (or not)
    The other part of the game is based on the game of othello/reversi so it’s not all about looking at cell slides.

  3. How wonderful – thank you. I heard on the news today that 4500 are dead of Ebola and thought that’s barely a town in the U.S. and yet all the news outlets are howling. This is much better information. I’m passing this along and I’ll check it out too. That cancer site looks interesting too, Kitty.

    1. It’s a real service we can all do to actually make a difference there. I was very relieved to find it since I hate that helpless sitting-around feeling. There’s very little non-hysterical information out there unfortunately, but the best argument I’ve heard for pitching in now is the fact that it’s big enough to spread to other largely poor, high-density areas of the globe like Nigeria and India. If that were to happen the scale of the disaster would be almost unimaginable, horrible as it’s already been. But there’s a lot of reason for optimism too. WHO and the CDC have gotten off to a slow start, but once they get organized they can be pretty darn effective.

      Thanks for the comment as always, Naomi!

      – Joe

  4. Great idea! Even better would be to institute a ban on commercial travel between those countries and ours. A temporary one of course,until the issue is controlled. We might want to think about better scrutiny on our borders. Of course some might want to accuse people of that of xenophobia,but it won’t hold water. Xenophobia is fear of the unkown,and we know how porous our borders are,and while we may not “know” that some crossing are infected with illnesses,it’s not exactly a huge leap of logic to make some assumptions about the possibilities.

    1. Hey John

      Thanks for the comment. I’ve read good arguments on both sides but my gut says the same thing at least for the time being!


      – Joe

    2. Part of the issue with a ban on commercial travel between Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone is that there are no direct flights. From here in Monrovia, you have to make at least two connections to get to the U.S.

      Yes, you can track people who are coming from here, and once they arrive pull them aside, but it isn’t nearly as easy as just stopping flights. You’d have to stop all flights from major European cities, and some not so major ones.

      The screening procedures that are in place on departure from West Africa and on arrival in the U.S. will catch anyone who is symptomatic. That should probably be augmented by robust contact tracing, that is, a call daily from the CDC or local health officials asking about temperature and other symptoms.

      Joe, thanks for the site. It should work well for the capital cities, but I have my doubts about the villages in the leeward (that is, up country, in the interior). The forests here are, in a word, lush, and we’re at the end of rainy season so everything is overgrown. I will definitely check it out!

      1. Hey QRM!

        There’s nothing like the perspective of someone who’s actually on the ground. I appreciate you weighing in on this, you make a lot of sense. Regarding the tool, have a look and I think you’ll be surprised. I’ve personally mapped about a dozen small villages out in the forested areas, you can see just about everything…or so it would appear.

        Take care of yourself over there, please. I shall read your blog with interest!


        – Joe

  5. Thanks for that!

    Sharing it with everyone I can.

    It feels so much better to do something than to be anxious and point fingers.

    1. Doesn’t it though? Sitting around worrying is for the birds.

      Thanks, Rainey!

      – Joe

  6. When MH370 went down, I went online to “help” search the plane wreckage via satellite images. I spent hours, literally hours doing so; you see, we were on a family holiday in Asia, on the same route, just a mere hours difference, with a different airlines, and I am still in awe that we are save and sound here, back in the U.S. I don’t know if I did it because I felt some sort of neurotic guilt to be back with my beloved family and those who boarded MH370 will never know what happen to theirs. In any case, I am still thinking about them and I do wish, when tragedy struck somewhere in the world, I can contribute in some way.

    I think this mapping task can be a real help. I am glad that technology is there to help people who wants to help but don’t know how (like me). Thank you for sharing the idea, Joe!

    1. My pleasure, Claire! Glad you’re still with us, and keep up the good work! We all need to pitch in a little if we can when disaster strikes. As you point out, we’re all lucky, lucky, lucky.


      – Joe

  7. HI Joe

    thanks for this …I have spent years living and working in Sierra Leone Sierra Leoneans are some of the nicest most generous people on the planet) and I am now based in the US ..I am going to take this on and have been using Open Street map ( hopefully correctly) to name things in the town( Port Loko) where I was a Peace Crops volunteer so many years ago..all I have been able to do to date is send money to friend in Sierra Leone to help them get through this troubling time. Ill take the tutorial next so I can begin the task of tracing ..this is great thanks

    1. Scott!

      So glad to hear from you. You’re the perfect guy for this, obviously. Very glad you found it and I hope you were able to make some headway with the app. It takes a little figuring out at first but then you just go, go, go!

      All my best to you and your friends. May everyone stay healthy and may this whole terrible episode end soon!


      – Joe

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