The Missing Maps project is mapping developing cities to curb the spread of ebola

The Missing Maps project has created maps of cities and villages in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Image: Uwe Dedering at Wikimedia Commons.

In the age of satellite photography and GPS, it seems unbelievable that parts of the world are still unmapped and uncharted. But, especially in the developing world, entire cities lack reliable, up to date maps, and this can make it hard for humanitarian agencies to do their jobs during natural disasters or outbreaks of disease.

Enter the Missing Maps project, through which the Red Cross, Médecins Sans Frontières and Humanitarian Open Street Maps are crowdsourcing street-level maps of unmapped cities. At the moment, they're focussing on creating maps to track the spread of ebola, and to help medical aid and volunteers reach sufferers more easily. In the long term, they hope to map the most “crisis-prone” parts of the developing world.

This Guardian piece explains how the project works:

The first step is to take satellite images – which, it may surprise you to learn, are often made available to the open mapping community from such unexpected sources as US government agencies and Microsoft – and plug them into the free mapping software OpenStreetMap. 

Volunteers then log in remotely, from anywhere in the world, and use a easy point-and-click tool to literally trace the outlines of buildings, roads, parks and rivers over the satellite image. Remove the image and voila: you have a basic, digital city map.

The project’s coordinators then print out these basic maps and hand them out to local volunteers, who work their way through a small area, filling in the names of streets and buildings. The volunteers then post the maps back to the project’s headquarters in London.

To illustrate the difference the maps can make, compare the two below - on the left is the hand-drawn map used by Médecins Sans Frontières volunteers in Katanga, a province in the Democratic Republic of Congo; to the right is a Missing Maps-created map of Lubumbashi, a city in the DRC: 

Image: MSF.

The project operates through OpenStreetMap, an open-source, online world map editable by anyone. (You can view changes to the map in real time here – be warned, it’s oddly addictive.)

Relying on crowdsourcing is, of course, tricky; especially as the Missing Maps process relies on a degree of digital literacy in its volunteers. As a result, the Guardian piece claims the project will require “the biggest team of digital humanitarian volunteers ever conceived”. But access to detailed city maps could do more than just speed up aid delivery - it could help authorities improve everything from housing policy to waste strategies.

 
 
 
 

The smartphone app placing virtual statues of women on the map

A virtual Edith Wharton in Central Park, New York City. Image: The Whole Story Project.

If you’re a woman, then in order for you to be immortalised in stone, bronze or whatever once you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, you should either have royal blood or be willing to be sculpted naked. That is the rule of thumb.

A statue that actually celebrates a woman’s achievements is a rare sight. Writing in the New Statesman last year, equality campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez found that out of 925 statues in Britain, as listed by the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, only 158 are of solo women. Of these, 46 are of royalty, including 29 of Queen Victoria. Fourteen depict the Virgin Mary.

There are signs of change, albeit slow. The suffragist Millicent Fawcett is set to be honoured with a statue in Parliament Square, where currently all 11 of the statues are of men. (They include Nelson Mandela and a nine-foot Gandhi.) The monument is to be unveiled next year to celebrate the centenary of British women receiving the right to vote.

Elsewhere, the late comedian Victoria Wood is being honoured with a statue that’ll be erected in Bury, Greater Manchester. In the Moss Side area of the city, a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst will be unveiled in 2019. Unlike the Fawcett one, neither of these is expected to receive public money, relying on crowdfunding and other sources instead.

So how many more statues of women, regardless of how they’re funded, would we need to build in order to reduce the gender gap? Well, according to Jonathan Jones, art critic at the Guardian, the magic number is: zero.

Jones’s argument, back in March, was that building statues doesn’t advance feminism, but simply traps us in the past. He wrote:

Statues don’t hold public memory. They politely bury it. These well-meaning images melt into the background scenery of our lives.

Whether this is empirically true is questionable, but it’s true that we tend not to erect them as often as we used to anyway. This is partly because there is less space available for such monuments – a noticeable disadvantage cities of the present have compared to those of the past. In order to reduce the imbalance, statues of men would probably have to be removed; many would no doubt be okay with that, but it would mean erasing history.

One partial answer to the problem is augmented reality. It can’t close the gender gap, but it could shine a spotlight on it.

To that end, an advertising agency in New York launched an app at the beginning of May. The Whole Story allows users to place virtual statues of women on a map; other uses can then view and find out more about the individuals depicted at their real-world locations, using their smartphone cameras.


Currently, users have to upload their own virtual statues using 3D-modelling software. But going forward, the project aims for an open collaboration between designers, developers and organisations, which it hopes will lead to more people getting involved.

Contributions submitted so far include a few dozen in New York, several in Washington and one of Jane Austen in Hyde Park. There are others in Italy and the Czech Republic.

Okay, it’s an app created by a marketing firm, but there are legitimate arguments for it. First, the agency’s chief creative office has herself said that it’s important to address the gender imbalance in a visual way in order to inspire current and future generations: you can’t be what you can’t see, as the saying going.

Second, if the physical presence of statues really is diminishing and they don’t hold public memory, as Jones argues, then smartphones could bridge the gap. We live our lives through our devices, capturing, snapping and storing moments, only to forget about them but then return to and share them at a later date. These memories may melt away, but they’ll always be there, backed up to the cloud even. If smartphones can be used to capture and share the message that a gender imbalance exists then that’s arguably a positive thing.  

Third, with the success of Pokemon Go, augmented reality has shown that it can encourage us to explore public spaces and heighten our appreciation for architectural landmarks. It can also prove useful as a tool for learning about historical monuments.

Of course no app will replace statues altogether. But at the very least it could highlight the fact that women’s achievements are more than just sitting on a throne or giving birth to the son of God.

Rich McEachran tweets as @richmceachran.

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