Mapping for a Healthier World

Organizations such as Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team and HealthMap are creating products using volunteer-provided local information and more to equip individuals and humanitarian efforts with tools that can be used to fight the spread of disease.

’Planet – A Year of Edits’ on OpenStreetMap. Colored lines illustrate the contributions made by volunteers across the globe. Image Credit: Peter Miller

’Planet – A Year of Edits’ on OpenStreetMap. Colored lines illustrate the contributions made by volunteers across the globe. Image Credit: Peter Miller

Imagine being dropped in the middle of a place you have never visited. You must find your way to crucial meetings throughout town, but your destinations are not on any maps – electronic or paper. People’s lives may depend on how many places you are able to locate.

For some healthcare workers, situations such as this can be a reality. During certain disease outbreaks, healthcare workers from organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Doctors Without Borders (MSF), and the Red Cross are deployed to affected areas. As an example, the CDC alone has deployed more than 2,400 professionals since the onset of the Ebola epidemic in March 2014. Often, areas affected by diseases such as Ebola are under-mapped or unmapped, creating major logistical obstacles for health workers.

In such situations, crowd-sourced map data plays an important role. During emergencies, volunteers have been known to create detailed maps of previously unmapped areas in a remarkable amount of time. Since the Ebola outbreak of 2014, 2,500 volunteers of the mapping organization Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) have been responsible for mapping more than 750,000 buildings and numerous roadways in West Africa. HOT volunteers and others contribute information including structure locations, roadways, and waterways to OpenStreetMap, a popular online map  available through an open source license.

Image of Kankan, Guinea, on OpenStreetMap. All edits, including the addition of roads, buildings, and more across the globe, are contributed by volunteers. Image Credit: OpenStreetMap

Image of Kankan, Guinea, on OpenStreetMap. All edits, including the addition of roads, buildings, and more across the globe, are contributed by volunteers. Image Credit: OpenStreetMap

As Blake Girardot, vice president of the HOT Board of Directors explains: “We generate map data that just doesn’t exist. Now case workers, decontamination teams, or people who do additional testing … have maps and building footprints.”

According to Girardot, mapped data makes the efforts of healthcare workers more effective, both in the Ebola crisis and in other emergencies. “They can plug this data into their (Geographic Information System) GIS to let them do analysis in order to figure out travel times, coverage areas for testing facilities, placement of mobile testing facilities and other resources, or where the closest lab is.”

In addition to mapping during emergencies, HOT is involved in an initiative called Missing Maps with the American Red Cross, British Red Cross, Netherlands Red Cross, MSF U.K., and others. Missing Maps is dedicated to mapping areas before disaster strikes so humanitarian organizations have the data they need to react quickly in case of an emergency.

Crowd-sourced mapping efforts assist healthcare workers, like these members of Doctors Without Borders, to provide relief to people suffering from epidemics such as Ebola. Image Credit: Morgana Wingard

Crowd-sourced mapping efforts assist healthcare workers, like these members of Doctors Without Borders, to provide relief to people suffering from epidemics such as Ebola. Image Credit: Morgana Wingard

Crowd sourced projects such as Missing Maps and HOT are not the only ways data mapping is used to help prevent disease transmission. HealthMap uses data from a variety of online sources to track disease outbreaks, monitor potential public health threats, and provide the information in a visual format for the public. The information provided by HealthMap can benefit a wide variety of users: from healthcare organizations deciding where their resources would be of most benefit during epidemics to locals preparing for possible risks in their neighborhood.

A screenshot of the HealthMap.org homepage, which represents ongoing disease reports as colored dots.

A screenshot of the HealthMap.org homepage, which represents ongoing disease reports as colored dots.

“HealthMap is a means of early detection and surveillance,” said Colleen Nguyen, a program coordinator at HealthMap. “We use nontraditional methods in an attempt to determine threats earlier than more traditional ones.”

Traditional health reports rely on information submitted by doctors or large organizations, such as the World Health Organization. These reports may be released daily, weekly, or less frequently. HealthMap integrates information from these typical sources along with atypical ones in a constant, autonomous process, providing updates instantly. Including atypical data sources allows HealthMap to include information that might be missed in traditional reports.

Nguyen gives an example: “During the Ebola outbreak, there were healthcare worker strikes and upsets that were reported on local news and community blogs. Unhappy or missing workers can cause problems for infection control and indicate the exacerbation of current situations. That warns us to monitor this area for further developments.”

HealthMap and other organizations also are exploring the role of social media in the area of outbreak prediction and mapping. Information from Twitter, Facebook, or Reddit may be useful to identify areas of potential problems before the problems become widespread.

Many people only go to the doctor after they become extremely ill, Nguyen says, but many post on Twitter or Facebook to complain about a cough or food poisoning at the first sign of illness.

One of HealthMap’s partner projects, Foodborne Chicago, uses Twitter feeds along with crowd-sourced data to alert the Chicago Department of Public Health of restaurants with potential food-poisoning issues. Another HealthMap project, Flu Near You, depends on crowd-sourced data submitted by users to track potential flu cases in North America. Like HealthMap, this data is made freely available online.  

Due to the open-source nature and relative newness of projects like HealthMap and HOT, research and statistical analysis into their impacts in epidemiology are limited. That is not to say that their use is without merit, however. Such projects share a commitment to empowering decision-makers and celebrate the novelty of their approach. According to Nguyen, transparency is the greatest thing about HealthMap.

“We want to bring public health back to the public. We want to give them access to information to make their own decisions.”

Girardot is also passionate about the open source aspect of OpenStreetMap.

“When disaster strikes, anybody can go and get the data without having to worry about who to contact or what they can use the data for. There will be 10 other organizations that use our data for every one we hear about.”

Annabel White is an undergraduate student studying electrical engineering through Arizona State University. She lives in Southwest Virginia and has a passion for all things math and science.

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