Putting HIV and malaria prevention on the map

Elijah Karanja is a secondary school student in Kenya who hopes his expertise in computer software and maps will ultimately help prevent HIV and malaria.

Recently he and other members of Nairobi YouthMappers used satellite images to fill in missing geographic information on Nairobi that none of them could have pointed to on a map — until now.

This was among a series of “mapathons” held across Africa and at U.S. universities this summer in which volunteers like Karanja provided details for unmapped areas of the world.

Maps are useful tools for the prevention and eradication of diseases. During the Ebola outbreak in west Africa in 2014, the State Department’s MapGive program helped people around the world fill in missing and inaccurate maps of the region so aid workers could track cases as the disease spread. The U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the U.S. President’s Malaria Initiative will use a similar tactic to help eradicate HIV/AIDS and malaria.

Graphic of three-step process showing how volunteers add detail to maps to help relief efforts (© Shutterstock/S. Gemeny Wilkinson)
(© Shutterstock/S. Gemeny Wilkinson)

At a mapathon, volunteers use an open-sourced software platform called OpenStreetMap to create geographic data by tracing the roads and buildings they see in satellite images that do not show up in maps of the area. Later, partners remotely or on the ground identify the streets and buildings by name and function or verify those details. Finally, the new information is added to maps in databases that health workers can access.

When there is a lack of detailed, accurate information that reflects the infrastructure in a specific area, it can hurt otherwise effective public health initiatives.

“We can’t solve problems if we don’t know where they are,” says Lawrence Sperling of PEPFAR’s Data Revolution for Sustainable Development Team, one of several organizations involved in the mapathon. (Others included the State Department’s MapGive initiative, the U.S. Agency for International Development’s YouthMappers initiative, local groups in Africa and the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a U.S. foreign aid agency).

Two maps, one with additional streets, buildings and other structures marked (© OpenStreetMap)
These maps are of the same location in Shinyanga, Tanzania. The map on the left shows a data-poor depiction of Shinyanga. The map on the right shows the details that volunteers in a “mapathon” added. (© OpenStreetMap)

This summer’s AIDS and malaria mapathons were held in Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa and Ghana and in the United States at Rutgers University in New Jersey, the College of William & Mary in Virginia and Texas Tech University.

Mappers worked on tasks targeting under-mapped areas that have a high prevalence of chronic diseases, which PEPFAR had identified in advance.

Oxford Osei Bonsu participated in the mapathon in Ghana. He hopes to encourage other young people to use data for community service projects. “I will push my people to learn how to map,” says Bonsu, who is the outreach coordinator at the Young African Leaders Initiative Regional Leadership Center in Accra, Ghana.