Ten tips for making simple, informative maps in a pandemic

MapAction has been collaborating for a number of years with French NGO and fellow humanitarian information management specialists CartONG.

Four people participating in an online meeting, two from MapAction, two from CartONG

In addition to our operational activities, we thought it would be worthwhile to pool our collective knowledge to create an informative article. The ten-minute read aims to give some helpful tips for people creating maps intended to assist humanitarian responses to the Corona virus and other pandemics.

Between us, we have a lot of experience of using geospatial analysis and visualisations to inform decision-making in this and previous epidemics, such as Ebola, as well as the current pandemic. We wanted to share this knowledge more widely and felt that, by working together, we could create something really useful and reach more people. Although it was written with pandemics in mind, many of the points apply to all kinds of map making.

You can read the article on the CartONG blog below.

AFD, H2H Network and UK aid logos

This project was co-funded by the French Development Agency (AFD) and the H2H Network’s H2H Fund, the latter supported by UK aid from the UK government.

Auction of famous antique map collection

Antique map by Munster, Sebastian.
Europa/das ein Drietheil der Erden

MapAction ambassador Farhad Vladi is a world-renowned collector of antique maps. Over many years, he has travelled the world, seeking out the finest, rarest, and most beautiful examples of early cartography.

Now he is putting this incredible collection up for auction, with a percentage of the proceeds benefiting the work of MapAction.

Included in the sale is the first map to be printed from woodblock (Magna Germania, created by Ptolemäus in 1486), marking the start of modern map making, as well as maps from the world’s most noted cartographers, including Gerard Mercator, Willem Jansz Blaeu, Abraham Ortelius, Johann Baptist Homann, Sebastian Münster, and Matthäus Seutter. 

MapAction Past & Future auction lot

Bidders can also purchase one of the first three MapAction Past & Future Packages. This will enable them to select a map from a back-catalogue of thousands of maps, each of which tells its own story. The map will be a framed, printed version, signed (where possible) by one or more of the team members that attended that emergency and made that map. MapAction will also provide a short description of the purpose and situation for which the map was made.

In buying a map from a past emergency, they will also be helping to fund MapAction’s ability to support future emergencies. To recognise that, the winning bidders can choose any map that appears in our online map library arising from a future response, and MapAction will send a digital copy of that map, along with a sincere message of thanks.

The auction takes place on 23 September 2020 at 12:00pm EST and is open to all. It will be hosted on Liveauctioneers.comInvaluable.com, and Bidsquare.com. Bidders can participate online, through absentee bidding, or phone bidding. 

Page from antique atlas by Ortelius, Abraham. Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (atlas)

Responding to the Beirut explosion

MapAction personnel began working yesterday on gathering data and producing reference and situational maps for use by first responders and humanitarian teams in Beirut following the devastating explosion that ripped through the city on 4 August.

A three-person MapAction team will arrive in Beirut tomorrow or Saturday to provide mapping and data management support to help coordinate the national and international response, at the request of the UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC). They will be supported remotely by other members of the MapAction team based in the UK.

Map showing rapid damage assessment of Beirut docks through remote observation (5 August 2020)

MapAction’s Moonshot – origins and ambitions

By Juan Duarte, Technical Director, and Monica Turner, Data Scientist, MapAction

Close up of left hand side of the moon
Photo: Adam Scott

History will always underscore how landing on the moon represented a significant milestone in the space race, yet what is often less spoken about is the number of technologies that might not have ever made it without space travel.

These include the all-important ability to take pictures on our phone, thanks to the technology originally created by a team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the technique used to develop diamond-hard coatings for aerospace systems that can now be found on scratch-resistant spectacles. Inventions that originally started life with a bigger purpose but have filtered down into solving some of the challenges in our everyday lives.

This brings us onto MapAction’s own Moonshot initiative – an ambitious programme of work encompassing step changes in the way we use different technologies in the course of our work. This includes things like how we triage, assign and manage the requests for support we receive, and how we can automate certain repeat activities. 

One of the first projects we are working on within the Moonshot programme will enable us to produce seven to nine key maps for 20 of the world’s most vulnerable countries automatically, using technology we’re developing that will provide benefits for many years to come. This is being funded through our partnership with the German Federal Foreign Office.

In the humanitarian sector, a perennial challenge is access to high-quality data. This need is even more acute in the chaotic aftermath of a humanitarian emergency, when data and maps are crucial to make rapid sense of the situation and plan the best response to save lives and minimise suffering. 

In the early hours of a crisis, one of the first tasks facing our team is to produce standardised ‘core’ maps that will be used throughout the response, regardless of the nature of the emergency. These provide contextual and reference information about, among other things, the local environment, population and infrastructure. Sometimes they are created under difficult on-the-ground conditions or with incomplete information. Once they are in place, they are used to create additional situation-specific maps by layering on top evolving information about the extent and impacts of the emergency and the humanitarian response.

As MapAction has made maps in hundreds of emergencies, it has become apparent that, in creating these foundational core maps, there are many repeatable, generalised tasks that could be handled much more quickly by a machine, achieving in seconds what used to take hours. This would give humanitarian decision-makers the orientation information they need immediately, and free up our specialist volunteers for actively assessing and engaging with the situation at hand and performing the mapping tasks that only humans can do. 

Moreover, by shifting the focus from reactive to proactive data sourcing and map production, we can ensure we provide the best maps possible – not just the best maps, given the time and data available and the prevailing circumstances in the midst of a humanitarian emergency. 

Many countries, particularly low and middle-income countries, are likely to have data gaps, and they are often also the countries that may have the least resilience to emergencies such as droughts or earthquakes. Identifying and addressing these data gaps in advance is a big part of the Moonshot project, and something that will have benefits for the humanitarian sector as a whole. 

Like the proverbial needle in the haystack, important data can exist within a subset of a much larger dataset and accessing it can be tricky. Finding a gap is even more difficult, as you’re looking for an unknown entity that isn’t there. The technology we’re developing for the Moonshot will help us to identify the hard-to-see data gaps and quality issues that currently exist. By discovering these, we can pinpoint what information will be needed to ensure a complete map and then work with partners around the world to proactively put in place missing data or improve what currently exists. 

The initial goal of the Moonshot is to publish 180 core maps (nine for each of the 20 vulnerable countries identified at the beginning of the project). The same processes will then be applied to other countries and, eventually, to other types of automated maps beyond these core ones. This means we will ultimately be in a position to expand our understanding and quality assessment processes for more data types. New opportunities and routes of travel are likely to emerge as the project develops.

The ambition is big, but the possibilities that will result from achieving this goal will fundamentally change the way we approach map creation in the humanitarian sector in the future.

In a series of blogs over the next few months, we will share the story of this work as it unfolds, as well as diving down deeper into specific elements of it.