New tool in Ebola battle: Smith College hosts map-making workshops

Last modified: Saturday, October 25, 2014

NORTHAMPTON — Emma Harnisch hunched over her laptop inside a small computer laboratory on the Smith College campus Thursday night, maneuvering a map-making computer program to draw a series of buildings, roads and walking trails in a remote section of Sierra Leone in the heart of the Ebola crisis.

If she did her job well, first-responders for Doctors Without Borders and other organizations providing medical assistance and humanitarian relief in that West African country will rely on the detailed maps to make their travels in the disease-ridden country easier.

“I hope it’s helping,” said Harnisch, a first-year Smith College student from Oregon. “From what I’ve heard and read, first-responders are in need of more accurate maps. Without knowing where you’re going, you’re not going to find the problem.”

Across the room, local resident Zesina Chang pulled up a map of the three West African countries — the contiguous countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea — to get some perspective about where so much of the world’s attention has been focused over the last few months.

The respiratory therapist attended Thursday’s “Social Mapping Night” at Smith with two goals in mind: to learn a bit about map-making and to lend a hand in some small way to the humanitarian aid project in West Africa.

“I really hope that it does something for them because being in a rural area, it can be easy to get lost,” Chang said. She pointed to an aerial photograph on her computer screen of a rural section in one of the West African countries. She was drawing lines around two buildings that appeared to have no roofs.

Instructors Jon Caris and Victoria Beckley of Smith’s Spatial Analysis Lab in Sabin-Reed Hall guided 10 people through a tutorial on OpenStreetMap Task Manager to help draw maps in the most affected regions. An earlier workshop drew 40 students, they said. Amherst College had a similar workshop last week, and Beckley said Smith is looking to help organize similar events at other college campuses in the coming weeks.

The people at these Smith and Amherst workshops are hardly alone. Novice map-makers around the world are donating their time to make maps being used in the fight against Ebola. Many are doing so with little or no map-making experience by using free, easy-to-use software available online.

The idea is to divide up a mapping job into smaller tasks that can be completed rapidly.

The maps, which are cross-checked by experts before being disseminated, are stored on computer servers where they can be easily accessed by workers in the field through smartphones and other technology, Caris said. Many of the maps are being used by Doctors Without Borders and the World Health Organization to spot large fields suitable for helicopter landings or pathways for Jeeps.

Mappers such as Harnisch, Chang and others use satellite images to zoom in on specific areas of the affected countries. They mark buildings such as schools, denote other structures, draw lines for roads and dotted lines for walking trails. As she worked on her map, Harnisch noted a large swath of vegetation separating what appeared to be two sections of a village.

It is possible, she surmised, that first-responders who initially found the village might not know there’s another section of the village beyond the vegetation. The detailed map can help provide that valuable information.

In the end, Caris said, people who took the class are encouraged to continue making maps on their own. While the emphasis right now is on Ebola, maps are needed to help humanitarian in all sorts of places. The OpenStreetMap project list, for example, including a cholera outbreak in the Sudan, shelters in the Gaza Strip and refugee camps in Cameroon.

“This is the classic crowd-sourcing effort ... this really took off after the Haiti earthquake,” said Caris, director of the college’s spatial lab.

Caris said the lab decided to host the humanitarian mapping program after being contacted by Theresa Clay, a Pittsfield woman who is leading an effort to educate and recruit as many volunteers as possible throughout the region. The lab expanded the event Thursday by inviting Dr. Leslie Jaffe, a Smith College physician and director of Health Services, to talk about the current state of the Ebola virus.

Jaffe stayed after his presentation to help with the mapping.

“I think all of us being here shows that we’re interested in talking about it,” said Beckley, referring to the Ebola crisis.

Prior to the map-mapping effort, many communities in the West African countries hardest hit had very basic maps. Red Cross officials said in an article describing the effort that most cities take between 24 and 48 hours to completely map.

The community of Gueckedou in southern Guinea near the Sierra Leone and Liberian borders, for example, initially had nine roads outlined on a map. Now hundreds of roads, buildings and streams are included on the current map, the Red Cross said.

The maps are then used by different organizations to create maps specific to their specialty in the treatment of Ebola. Volunteers with the International Federation of the Red Cross use the maps to find communities where they are providing education on prevention, while Doctors Without Borders uses the maps to create data visualization of the spread of the disease and coordinate field teams.

“These digital volunteers have made a significant impact on the ability of humanitarian workers to provide lifesaving assistance on the ground in West Africa,” according to a Red Cross article.

That pleases Andrew Kuether and Karyn Nelson, two GIS experts employed by the city of Northampton who attended Thursday’s training.

“If I can do a little bit along with a thousand other people who do a little, a lot gets done,” said Kuether, a GIS coordinator for the Department of Public Works.

Chad Cain can be reached at


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