Red Cross Recruits Volunteers to Map Ebola Outbreak Regions

October 16, 2014  - By


The American Red Cross Geographic Information System team is enlisting volunteers to help map areas in Africa hard hit by the ebola virus. The Red Cross is attempting to get ahead of the virus by creating detailed maps of rural towns and villages so officials can track the deadly virus as it spreads, according to ABC News. Volunteers have been drafted to study satellite imagery of homes, schools and villages.

Once the maps are detailed, they are sent to Red Cross partners, including Doctors Without Borders and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, which are working in the field to treat victims and stop the outbreak.

The maps are useful in a variety of ways. With better maps, epidemiologists can track where the disease is spreading, and find sick individuals in remote areas. In a specific example, the World Health Organization requested that GIS professionals look at cemeteries, a key location where infection can occur.

The volunteers have been able to fine-tune maps of remote villages which are used by relief workers trying to navigate rural roads, towns and neighborhoods. For instance, the original map for Guéckédou, Guinea, a town near the epicenter of the outbreak, showed just nine roads. After volunteers studied satellite photographs, they were able to add hundreds of roads and streams.

The project goes both ways, as people working in the remote areas send in GPS locations for villages that have never been mapped before. The maps can be vital to fight Ebola in rural areas where road signs, maps and GPS locations are scarce.

A GIS expert helps the Doctors without Borders epidemiological team respond to the ebola outbreak. Photo: American Red Cross Geographic Information System

A GIS expert helps the Doctors without Borders epidemiological team respond to the ebola outbreak. Photo: American Red Cross Geographic Information System

The effort is similar to an effort by MSF-Switzerland (Doctors without Borders) in March 2014, which deployed a dedicated GIS officer to Guinea in response to the Ebola outbreak in the south of the country. During his eight-week his mission, the GIS officer produced 109 maps for this previously very poorly mapped area. The maps included basic orientation maps that showed roads, landmarks and villages but also specialized maps that visualized population density or the spread of the disease.

With the help of the newly created database and subsequently produced maps, the GIS officer was able to pinpoint the exact location of villages and identify villages that had the same name but were in different parts of the prefecture. Based on this information, MSF program staff were able to respond to the outbreak faster, in a more targeted way and with fewer resources.

Plus, the weekly mapping of confirmed and suspected Ebola cases helped translate the progression of the epidemic from technical data into an easy-to-grasp map. As a result, staff at all levels had a better understanding of the emergency.

Just like the American Red Cross is currently doing, the GIS unit crowdsourced certain mapping tasks, which resulted in a substantial number of overview maps created with the help of close to 250 online volunteers. The volunteers helped to map previously unmapped cities and roads within a few days, and at a granular level, mapping individual buildings. These overview maps then became the foundation of many maps that the GIS officer created for the outbreak response.

To learn more about that project, download a PDF report, “GIS Support for the MSF Ebola response in Guinea in 2014.”

For historical context, Esri’s ArcGIS is provides a story map that shows previous ebola outbreaks in Central Africa, 1976–2013, as well as the current outbreak. The interactive story map explores the first known contact with the disease in 1976 in the Democratic Republic of Congo and every outbreak since then, including the ongoing crises in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria. Users get basic statistics about each outbreak and browse reports from different agencies, all directly within the map.

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1 Comment on "Red Cross Recruits Volunteers to Map Ebola Outbreak Regions"

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  1. John says:

    The referenced ABC News report is from August 6! That project has been going on for some time.

    Here’s an Oct 10 update from Mapbox on the HOTOSM effort.