Last year, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was struck by two major public health crises.
First, an outbreak of measles struck Idjwi Island in April, followed by a yellow fever epidemic in Kinshasa, DRC’s capital and largest city, which occurred in August.
It may be hard to believe but in both instances, volunteers from countries halfway across the world were the keys to alleviating these medical and humanitarian emergencies.
As most of these territories were uncharted, international medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) were significantly hampered in their effort to move in on these stricken communities.
In stepped these volunteers, who created maps that enabled vaccines, emergency supplies and medical professionals to be speedily navigated to these areas. For Kinshasa, 76,000 buildings were put on the map in 15 days, charting out three health zones and enabling MSF personnel to vaccinate a staggering 720,000 people in just 10 days.
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And now, to assist MSF missions in other remote regions, volunteers in Singapore have come together to support its Missing Maps initiative by taking part in a mapathon on Dec 2.
Jointly launched by MSF, the American and British Red Cross, as well as the Humanitarian OpenStreetMapTeam in 2014, Missing Maps enables keen volunteers to transcend the limits of distance to help the vulnerable.
Using an OpenStreetMap software, anyone with a computer can help to locate buildings, roads, pathways and water sources by using satellite images. This data is then verified by organisations and personnel on the ground, and used to plan out humanitarian operations.
Held as part of SG Giving Week this year, Singapore’s inaugural Missing Maps Mapathon engaged 200 participants over two sessions. The ability to meaningfully touch lives despite being miles away from the beneficiaries was a big draw.
The challenge of the day? Digitally map out Nigeria’s Niger state.
A volunteer remarked during the afternoon session: “Now, if anything were to happen to Niger tomorrow, we know we have made a direct impact on that country. However remote these places are and even if you can’t see the local community, it doesn’t mean you can’t help.
While the idea of volunteerism may commonly conjure up visions of physical labour in third world countries, or spending hours interacting with beneficiaires, mapathons are especially appealing to today’s busy digital natives.
Volunteer trainer James pointed to the convenience of this form of digital volunteerism, as participants can contribute whenever they can.
Speaking to The Pride, he said: “Anytime I have an hour to spare, I can just go in and help. Sometimes, emergency maps may appear. For example, if there’s an earthquake happening over an area that has not been mapped, we will put the map on top and make an urgent call for help. Then, people from all over the world can log in and help us to map out that area.”
Among the younger participants was 14-year-old Rafael, who confessed that all he knew about the initiative before coming to the session was that he was going to be making maps.
Having done volunteer work with migrant workers in Singapore under the tutelage of Dr Tan Lai Yong, Singapore’s very own barefoot doctor, he said he was keen to volunteer with MSF in future after listening to the stories shared by MSF’s field workers.
And, coming from a generation known for being tech-obsessed, he was happy to learn that he could put these tech skills to use for a good cause.
Reflecting on his experience, Rafael told The Pride: “It was pretty fun and it makes a positive impact for people who are suffering in other parts of the world. It feels heartening.”
Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) is an international medical humanitarian aid organisation that provides free, quality medical assistance to populations in crisis. For more information, please visit their website.
As MSF has not yet been registered in Singapore, if you live in Singapore and wish to donate to MSF, please do so via its Hong Kong regional office at this link.