Kill Your Boredom for a Really Good Cause

Crowd-sourcing answers to the most basic question: where are people?

Getty Images / Brent Stirton

You’re bored at work, thinking about that vacation that already seems like an eternity ago. You might even take a “road trip” from Queens to Cabo using only Google Street View. But what if instead of taking thousand-mile journeys, click by click, what if you really explored? What if you mapped the world?

That’s the idea behind this smartphone app from Doctors Without Borders – known internationally as MSF (“Médecins Sans Frontières”) – called MapSwipe.

The program uses satellite images of rural areas from OpenStreetMap — an open-source, community-based mapping platform — and encourages people to swipe through, looking for things like houses and hospitals, as well as roads and other landmarks.

MapSwipe is one part of a larger effort called the Missing Maps project, which is dedicated to literally putting remote regions on a map that humanitarian workers can use to help find those most in need of assistance. “Missing Maps crowdsources geographical data through a huge army of volunteers and thousands of people, using OpenStreetMap as a repository,” Pete Masters, project coordinator at the Missing Maps Project, tells Inverse.

If it sounds like Google Maps has already solved this problem, that’s probably a result of thinking about the world that’s already been developed and mapped. OpenStreetMap is, as its name suggests, open source, and provides raw data to its users for free, whereas Google Maps provides its final product but keeps its raw data proprietary. And where Google Maps owns all the data its users provide, OpenStreetMap is owned by the community.

So while mindlessly clicking through Google Street View is one way to spend your time, you could be doing actual good by mapping the world with Missing Maps. It has three stages: The first – which is where MapSwipe comes in – requires a volunteer to choose an area to map from an already-existing task list and identify structures visible in the satellite images. “This might be buildings, it might be roads, it might be residential areas or villages,” Masters says. From there, mappers work with local humanitarian aid organizations to add context and precision to the maps. The third-and-final step is putting that new information to use by, for example, offering assistance to a vaccination campaign.

But the first step can be incredibly time-consuming. Scanning through satellite images that cover miles upon miles, only to find one village, can take hours. MapSwipe crowdsources the initial step to smartphone users to answer the most basic question — “where are people?” as Masters put it – and create the foundation for a map. The app divides a smartphone’s screen into a grid of six squares. If a mapper sees a structure the project manager was looking for, they tap once and the screen goes green. If they see something but can’t be sure about it, they tap twice and the square turns yellow. And if the image is bad because of cloud cover or other obstructions, they tap three times and it goes red.

For now, each square gets looked at by at least three people, though that number could go up to add additional accuracy. And so far, the reaction has been promising. “In the last 30 days there have been 7,500 active users,” said Masters. “So we think that over 10 or 11 thousand have downloaded the app.”

One of those people is Sam Colchester, who got involved with MapSwipe after volunteering at the Missing Maps Project. “I’ve swiped through swathes of Niger, Madagascar, and the border regions of West Africa,” Colchester tells Inverse. “Frequently you’ll come across beautiful aerial imagery, whether it’s a swollen river cutting through green fields or a hamlet nestled within dense rainforest. Exploring the world like this while standing in the tube or sitting on a bus is a wonderful feeling.”

The Missing Maps Project was started by MSF, the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, and both the American and British Red Cross. In 2010, an earthquake in Haiti resulted in a massive humanitarian disaster, and NGOs realized they didn’t have maps and data to determine how best to deploy their resources. They began using OpenStreetMap, and later founded the Missing Maps Project, which has already chalked up major humanitarian victories. Following a measles outbreak on the island of Idjwi in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Missing Maps held “mapathons” to create detailed maps that could then be used in the vaccination campaign.

With MapSwipe, humanitarian workers are hoping to get out in front of the next major disaster. And for volunteers like Colchester, that gives him a strong incentive to keep swiping. Plus, if you need to zone out, it’s not a bad way to spend your time. MapSwipe lends itself to mobile use because it isn’t demanding – it can be done on the move, Colchester said. “Killing time in a trance-like state.”