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In 1854, physician John Snow identified the main source of a cholera epidemic in London using a map, and with it established the field of epidemiology. In a lecture theatre — fittingly named after Snow — at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, an initiative was launched earlier this month (7 November) to generate maps to help trace disease in uncharted areas.

The Missing Maps Project, founded by a consortium including Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), aims to develop basic maps of slums and other unmapped areas in the developing world to reveal infrastructure gaps and the source of diseases. The idea is to do this using information crowdsourced from local people.

Ivan Gayton, a technology advisor at MSF UK, told me at the launch that he was “shocked” that maps were not being regularly used to identify the source of infection in many of the places where humanitarian and medical agencies work today.

That is simply because maps of the worst affected areas — slums, in particular — often do not exist.

This is all good news. But the issue of ethics cropped up several times throughout the panel discussion at the launch. If humanitarian mapping initiatives such as Missing Maps attach GPS (global positioning system) coordinates to marginalised people and sometimes even map vulnerable communities for the first time, does this put such groups in danger? Could the new maps be used to exacerbate existing power structures?

Crowdsourced data should not be chosen because it’s cheaper, it should be chosen because it’s better.

Andrew Braye, British Red Cross

This seems possible. Emma Prest, general manager at DataKind UK, spoke of cases in India where local authorities saw the huge extent of slums for the first time on a map and then led a crackdown on them.

Missing Maps appears to have a great ethical framework: volunteers are discouraged from mapping in dangerous areas and the initiative goes beyond the notion of informed consent as it plans mapping projects in collaboration with local people from the beginning. But it’s important that humanitarian workers think hard about their responsibilities when using crowdsourced data.

Another concern raised at the launch was that NGOs could be turning to crowdsourced open data simply as a cheaper alternative to data gathering and monitoring.

Andrew Braye, GIS (geographic information system) team facilitator at the British Red Cross, another of the project partners, argued that this should never happen.

“Crowdsourced data should not be chosen because it’s cheaper, it should be chosen because it’s better,” he said. OpenStreetMap, he added, better than the alternative not because it’s open source, but because the result on the ground is more effective.

He told me that is why MSF is working with the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap team — another partner in the Missing Maps Project — to respond effectively to disease outbreaks as the open data allows data gaps to be filled rapidly and accurately by integrating local knowledge and technical expertise.

According to Braye, there simply isn’t a viable alternative to what the volunteer effort brings in terms of skills, resources and passion in developing countries with a lack of reliable data.