While the Middle East, West Africa, and North America are thousands of miles apart, the global spread of Ebola has suddenly brought these regions closer together: This month, users of Souktel’s mobile job service in Palestine teamed up with IBM staff and students in New York for a one-day “mapathon”—gathering data to help aid agencies fight the disease’s spread.
Working across continents, the teams used Open Street Map–a free, open source mapping platform–to identify buildings in satellite images of Liberia and Sierra Leone, two of the countries hardest hit by the Ebola outbreak. The teams then tagged and labelled the buildings, to give aid providers like the Red Cross a clearer picture of where houses—and families who may be suffering from Ebola—are located in densely populated areas.
“In most parts of Liberia and Sierra Leone, maps are poor quality—or they just don’t exist,” explained Souktel’s COO Mahmoud Shayeb, who led the Palestine-based mapping drive. “Google maps won’t show the level of detail that aid agencies need. They may show major streets, but nothing else. That’s why this kind of mapping is so important”.
In a statement to the US mapping team, IBM Chief Information Strategist Steven Adler added: “Ebola is growing faster than organizational efforts to combat it, [but] there is still time to make difference. Aid groups around the world are working overtime to bring resources to combat the epidemic…IBM is stepping forward to bring open data together” so that these aid providers have better information to “focus their resources, make a difference and save lives”.
The Souktel-IBM mapping drive is part of a wider initiative of the US State Department’s Humanitarian Information Unit, called MapGive. Its mission is to engage volunteers across the globe to learn mapping skills—and then use these skills to support aid efforts in times of crisis. The US Consulate General in Jerusalem co-sponsored the Ramallah event, helping more than forty Palestinian team members to get trained on the basics of online mapping so they could work with IBM peers in the US.
For the Middle East mapping drive, Souktel managed all event logistics through its mobile JobMatch platform: To promote the “mapathon”, staff used the platform to select several hundred eligible youth from a database of 15,000+ job service users. The platform then sent SMS alerts to these youth, with event details and basic screening questions—to ensure that participants were located in the Ramallah area, had basic IT skills, and were available on weekends. Once the selection process was complete, the final group of mappers got SMS confirmation alerts, and reminders to ensure they arrived at the venue on time.
“Initiatives like MapGive are important for two reasons,” explained Souktel’s Shayeb: “They support emergency aid efforts, but they also help young people to build self-confidence and skills. This project lets Palestinian youth, who are often very isolated, connect with the global community and help their fellow citizens—even if crisis events are far away”. He added: “And these youth can now take online courses to build their IT knowledge even further. They’re coming away with the kind of skill sets that employers want to see”.
As Souktel rolls out new mobile services to support aid providers in the region, these newly-trained mappers may be in high demand: “If one of our aid agency partners asks us for mapping volunteers, we have a roster of youth who are ready,” Shayeb offered.