A new project to map the world’s crisis areas so that aid agencies can respond faster and better to emergencies is being launched today in London.

At the Missing Maps event, volunteers will map areas of West Africa affected by the Ebola outbreak as well as regions of South Sudan caught up in conflict and food crisis. The maps will be put to immediate use by medical field teams on the ground.

Accurate, up-to-date maps are essential for aid agencies responding to natural disasters, epidemics or wars, but often these do not exist. The Missing Maps project – a new partnership between the American Red Cross, the British Red Cross, the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) – aims to fill in the gaps by mapping the world’s most vulnerable areas, with the help of an army of online volunteers.

The maps will be a key resource for humanitarian organisations, as well as being open-source and freely available to anyone who needs them.

“In the age of Google Earth, it is hard to imagine that there are still communities in the world that don’t appear on any official maps,” says Pete Masters, Missing Maps coordinator from MSF. “But there are – places such as Central African Republic. When it comes to emergency response, maps are vital for coordinating resources effectively and assessing areas of need.”

The project is already underway, kickstarted by the urgency of the Ebola response, with MSF and the Red Cross recruiting new volunteers to map areas of West Africa affected by the disease, helping to direct teams on the ground towards at-risk communities and aiding contact tracing.

But the main focus of the mapping project will be to identify and map vulnerable areas before a crisis occurs, in order to gain a head start if the worst does happen.

“Maps are a vital tool for decision making,” says Kate Chapman from HOT. “It is really exciting to bring organisations and individuals together in a concerted effort to assist humanitarian response by filling in holes in geographic information."

The maps are created by teams of volunteers, some online and others on the ground. To create a map of Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo, digital volunteers traced features such as roads, building and rivers from satellite imagery to create a digital ‘base map’.

Teams of local volunteers recruited from the University of Lubumbashi took sections of this base map and walked the areas traced, adding road names and other details. These were scanned and uploaded, and the new information was added to the base map by digital volunteers. After being checked by an experienced mapper, the completed map was ready for use.

“This digital volunteering allows people to actively contribute in a very real way to the work that humanitarian agencies do,” says Andrew Braye of the British Red Cross. “Time and skill are the donations. It’s a real, collaborative effort, and whether you have five minutes or five days to spare, all you need is a computer to contribute to the next map that will be used by a humanitarian field team on the ground.”

Launch event

The Missing Maps launch will be livestreamed on Friday 7 November from 6 pm GMT and will feature presentations by three of the founding members. This will be followed by a panel discussion on the theme ‘Open-data, mapping for disasters and geospatial information: improving lives through digital activism’.

At the request of MSF field teams, volunteer mappers will go on to trace areas of South Sudan, to be used in the coming weeks to conduct emergency mortality and nutrition assessments, and areas of West Africa, to help MSF’s response to the Ebola outbreak.

There will be simultaneous launch events in the UK, US, Canada, Indonesia, Germany, Switzerland and the Philippines.