A mobile phone app used to create geographical maps of crisis and catastrophe areas has been awarded a main prize at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona (Spain). Geoinformatics scientists at Heidelberg University were major contributors to the project. Data generated via the MapSwipe app can be used, for example, to determine the number of inhabitants affected in a disaster area or to fight the spread of disease, says Alexander Zipf, who directs the Geoinformatics division of the Institute of Geography.
MapSwipe is a mobile open source application of the "Missing Maps" project. The goal of this humanitarian project is to pre-emptively map countries and regions especially at risk for natural catastrophes, conflicts, and disease epidemics. Volunteers use the app to generate maps: They receive satellite images for viewing and then tap and swipe to locate infrastructures such as buildings and streets, and can thus also document any changes in the areas. This data helps aid organisations to respond better to crises on the ground. Benjamin Herfort of the Geoinformatics division reports that "Missing Maps" has for example already been used to support the refugee response in Colombia, vaccination campaigns in Chad, and the fight against Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The Heidelberg researchers have played a decisive role in MapSwipe’s development from the very beginning, including by designing the app’s underlying crowdsourcing approach. "We provided the tools needed to manage such a global project as well as efficiently analyse and make use of the data", explains Alexander Zipf. He is also Managing Director of the Heidelberg Institute for Geoinformation Technology (HeiGIT), which transfers research findings to practical applications with support from the Klaus Tschira Foundation. "In the foreseeable future, it will also be possible to use machine learning and artificial intelligence technologies to improve the open mapping", adds the researcher. His team also designs tutorials that help users contribute better data.
MapSwipe is maintained with the support of the British Red Cross, the HeiGIT, the OpenStreetMap Foundation as well as the organisation Doctors Without Borders. Meanwhile nearly 30,000 volunteers have used the app to assist the "Missing Maps" project and analysed images of 29 different countries with a total surface area of over 850,000 square kilometres. At the Mobile World Congress, the international wireless association GSM named the mobile phone app the best mobile innovation supporting humanitarian emergency situations.