I’d like to share what my kids did in class today…

…but first a quick story.

In 1854 there was a Cholera outbreak in London.  Dr. John Snow decided to plot on a map of London each case of Cholera.  He soon found that they were mostly concentrated around one well which was near a sewage pit.  He removed the handle and the outbreak stopped.  578 people died.

156 years later there was a Cholera Outbreak in Haiti.  No detailed maps of the effected area were available.  Over 8,000 people died.

As you have probably heard on the news, Ebola is spreading through many African communities.  Aid workers trying to bring the outbreak under control lack detailed maps, the same type of maps that John Snow had access to more than 150 years ago.

To combat this problem the organization Doctors Without Borders in collaboration with the American and British Red Cross has started a project called Missing Maps. It allows people around the world to use satellite imagery to help create digital maps to help organizations respond to natural disasters, conflict, and epidemic diseases.

Missing Maps
CC-BY-SA Missing Maps 2014

Here is a description of how it works:

The first step is to take satellite images – which, it may surprise you to learn, are often made available to the open mapping community from such unexpected sources as US government agencies and Microsoft – and plug them into the free mapping software OpenStreetMap.

Volunteers then log in remotely, from anywhere in the world, and use a easy point-and-click tool to literally trace the outlines of buildings, roads, parks and rivers over the satellite image. Remove the image and voila: you have a basic, digital city map.

Next, the map, which still lacks street or landmark names, is physically printed out and posted to volunteers who are located in the city. These “ground troops” – anyone from students to Scouts – each take a small section of the map, head out with a pencil and write down the names of streets and buildings.

Finally, the completed maps are posted back to Missing Maps HQ in London, where volunteers fill in the names on OpenStreetMap. The result: a city map that is open source and free for ever.

Today my kids put people “on the map.” As I heard one kid say after plotting a house, “now someone will know they are there.”  It was a pretty amazing activity, and well worth taking a day off from the prescribed standardized curriculum.  While the kids might never know the direct impact of the areas they map on Friday, it is an amazing thing that a team of doctors could be driving down a road with aid to homes in a Filipino village because they were plotted on a map by an eleven year old kid in Connecticut.

Below is a video of what it looks like to work on the site–at the end of the video I went to a second map of a refugee camp in Ethiopia.   It was amazing to hear the kids who randomly found it react to the sheer size of it.

And a couple more links about Missing Maps:

Missing Maps: nothing less than a human genome project for cities

Off the Map: Rich Countries are deluged with data; developing ones are suffering from a drought

Everyone knows that the day before Thanksgiving break there is not a DVD player, TV, or projector available in schools as public schools engage in one of the greatest traditions — showing a movie the day before a vacation.  Instead of watching a movie, have your kids place some people “on the map.”

It did take about 15 minutes to introduce and get everyone on the site after a crash course on how to use the tools on the website.  If your kids have the ability to watch a couple videos at home here are two that would allow them to come into school nearly ready to start.


My kids are eleven and twelve and were able to handle the mapping.  Some took a bit of extra assistance, and we don’t have many “digital natives” so there was some basic click here and there sort of directions I had to give before they were rolling.  To  streamline the process I had everyone log-in with our class account.  I can see younger kids doing this, but might have the computers already logged in to a “square” with items like houses ready to be plotted.  I also found that it was easier to have them work on maps that were less than 75% complete.  It was simply easier for them to find areas to map that were empty and not touched by any other volunteers in the world–it was also simply more exciting to be plotting areas that no one had done, rather than trying to find the things that other people missed.

And one last video showing the potential impact of the kids work: