Humanitarian Mapping Efforts To Stop Ebola Develop On Smith Campus

Katherine Hazen '18 Contributing Writer 

Humanitarian mapping is the process of editing satellite images to label features such as roads, rivers, buildings and open fields.  Developed during the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, humanitarian mappers use OpenStreetMap, an Internet-based freeware of editable mapping software; the efforts expanded and have since been used to combat cholera in Sudan and locate shelters in the Gaza Strip and refugee camps in Cameroon.

The West African regions affected by the bioepidemic are largely unmapped, which poses a  problem to first responders of organizations such as Doctors Without Borders, Red Cross and World Health Orgenization.  Humanitarian mapping efforts have become the biggest ally to first responders in the wake of the Ebola crisis, according to Theresa Clary, CEO of Workforce Strategies, Inc. Clary presented a workshop in the Spatial Analysis Lab at Smith on Oct. 23.  Recently, the World Health Organization predicted that soon 10,000 new cases of Ebola will appear per week. WHO also revealed that the mortality rate for confirmed cases is 70%. Maps are essential for first responders to reach communities in need of food, medicine and prevention education.

Clary expressed a concern for the lack of mappers in the Ebola crisis as there are currently less than 1,700 mappers worldwide.

“If we truly want to understand Ebola at its source, then the topic of humanitarian mapping has to be place at front and center,” Clary stated.

The Spatial Analysis Lab at Smith hosted Clary for a “Social Mapping Night” to demonstrate mapping to students and faculty, and as Emma Harnisch ’18 said, “Anyone with access to a computer with Internet can learn.”  First responders choose the areas to be mapped, and then using Bing aerial imagery donated by Microsoft to OpenStreetMap, mappers zoom in and label establishments, roads and fields.  Once saved to OpenStreetMap, an expert reviews the changes made and the map is published on the website first responders can access it.

Victoria Beckley, post-baccalaureate fellow of the Spatial Analysis Lab, and Harnisch and Victoria are both working on publicizing and involving more students in the efforts at Smith.  “I would love to see students realize that mapping really crosses all academic departments, not just the sciences. Minds from all disciplines can contribute to the mapping efforts”  Harnisch said has also collaborated with Clary to bring mapping efforts to her native Oregon, in addition to aiding Clary with social media outreach.

The American discourse on Ebola is characterized by panic, especially in the last few weeks as some cases appeared stateside, and Dannia Guzman ’15 wrote in her article in The Huffington Post, “In this interconnected world we cannot naively believe that health-related crises can be contained within the boundaries of any area of the world.”  The need to publicize humanitarian mapping within the Smith community and nationally was expressed by Beckley, Clary and Harnisch.  Through humanitarian mapping, it is possible to slow the spread of the deadly virus in West Africa from the couch.