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.

 
 
 
 

Sadiq Khan and Grant Shapps clash over free bus travel for under 18s

A London bus at Victoria station. Image: Getty.

The latest front in the row between Transport for London (TfL) and national government over how to fund the capital’s transport system: free bus travel for the under 18s.

Two weeks ago, you’ll recall, TfL came perilously close to running out of money and was forced to ask for a bail out. The government agreed, but offered less money, and with more strings attached, than the agency wanted. At present, there are a range of fare discounts – some up to 100% – available to children depending on their age and which service they’re using, provided they have the right Oyster card. One of the government’s strings, the mayor’s office says, was to end all free TfL travel for the under 18s, Oyster or no Oyster.

The Department for Transport’s line on all this is that this is about maximising capacity. Many working-age people need to use buses to get to their jobs: they’re more likely to be able to do that, while also social distancing, if those buses aren’t already full of teenagers riding for free. (DfT cited the same motivation for banning the use of the Freedom Pass, which provides free travel for the retired, at peak times.)

But in an open letter to transport secretary Grant Shapps, the mayor, Sadiq Khan, wrote that TfL believed that 30% of children who currently received free travel had a statutory entitlement to it, because they attend schools more than a certain distance from their homes. If TfL doesn’t fund this travel, London’s boroughs must, which apart from loading costs onto local government means replacing an administrative system that already exists with one that doesn’t. 

Some Labour staffers also smell Tory ideological objections to free things for young people at work. To quote Khan’s letter:

“It is abundantly clear that losing free travel would hit the poorest Londoners hardest at a time when finances are stretched more than ever... I want to make sure that families who might not have a choice but to use public transport are not further disadvantaged.”

London’s deputy mayor for transport, Heidi Alexander, is set to meet government officials next week to discuss all this. In the mean time, you can read Khan’s letter here.

UPDATE: The original version of this piece noted that the full agreement between the mayor and DfT remained mysteriously unpublished. Shortly after this story went live, the agreement appeared. Here it is.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.