From Washington to Rwanda: Let the Mapping Begin

Published: 8 December 2015 19:03 CET

By American Red Cross

"Not having an accurate map presents a challenge to disaster preparedness efforts."

We are in an age, it seems, when people can find their way absolutely anywhereby searching the map on their smartphone. But in reality, there are many locations in the world that are “invisible.” These towns and cities aren’t on the map. This makes it difficult for disaster responders to come to residents’ aid when an earthquake, landslide, or typhoon strikes. Not having an accurate map also presents a challenge to disaster preparedness efforts. That’s why the American Red Cross, British Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, and the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team formed Missing Maps—a project to put more than 20 million people onto a free and editable map of the world.

It is Geography Awareness Week, so Missing Maps is hosting events across the globe with the theme “Explore! The Power of Maps.” Teachers, students, community groups, and map lovers from more than 65 institutions and grassroots organizations are joining together to celebrate geography and make maps. To volunteer yourself, go to

American Red Crosser, Jenelle Eli, traveled to Rwanda this year to see how the Red Cross’s Missing Maps team was helping people living in a hillside community. Here, she shares her experience.

Day 1 

Why didn’t anyone tell me how beautiful Rwanda is! Our Missing Maps team took a breathtaking drive through rolling hills this week—awe punctuated by language lessons on the trip from the nation's capital. We arrived in Huye—a small city not far from the Burundi border—to teach ten Red Cross volunteers to use open source mapping technology. Armed with laptops, smart phones, and a printer to leave with the Rwandan Red Cross upon departure, our self-proclaimed "mapping geeks," Emily and Drishtie welcome the trainees to the two-week course that will teach them how to start putting the world's vulnerable communities on the map. 

After getting introduced to OpenStreetMap, the trainees are ready for a walkabout. They set-off with base maps: outlines of satellite imagery that indicate roads and building, but lack true meaning. As part of the learning exercise, the trainees take a section of the neighborhood and add color: they mark the use and quality of roadways; indicate whether buildings are residential or commercial; and evaluate which homes would withstand natural disasters. I walked around with Eugene and Agnes (pictured above) as they filled in their map with features like a piece of land that is prone to erosion.

This is just practice, but in a few days we head to Cyahinda on the Rwanda/Burundi border. Type the name of that town into Google Maps and you won't find it. That's why we're here.

Cyahinda is prone to landslides, mosquito borne illnesses, and is going through a food shortage, but its roads and residents aren't even visible to most of the globe. Our trainees will fill in all the blanks so that local inhabitants and the Red Cross can map evacuation routes, identify high-risk areas, and ensure that first responders know where to go if an emergency strikes. And that's just scratching the surface of how useful these maps can be to the local community.

By the end of today, the volunteers beamed with accomplishment. Agnes told me about how she's proud to be volunteering in a field that’s dominated by men, saying, “Anything men can do, women can do.” Only our second day here, but the layers of Rwanda’s beauty just keep unfolding.

Day 4

Woke up earlier than the roosters for our drive to Cyahinda – the rural district whose households are spread out along steep hillsides—that we’re putting on the map this week. 

The Red Cross Missing Maps team, Drishtie and Emily, distribute small sections of the base map to our ten trainees from the Rwanda Red Cross. The trainees’ task is to inject meaning into these base maps by adding information about water points, power lines, road conditions, land use, and quality of building construction. Carrying smartphones loaded with the Open Map Kit app, they get dropped off at their assigned locations where they’ll walk around recording these key pieces of information.

Of course, some volunteers can’t reach their location by car, so we traipse through fields of cabbage and beans, all the while recording these land use qualities into the phone app. Huffing and puffing, we now understand why Rwanda is called the “land of a thousand hills.”

Halfway through the drop-offs, we hit a fork in the road. Literally. Our base maps don’t line up with what our eyes are seeing. Four of us spread out papers on the dusty roadside and try our hardest to figure out where we’re supposed to be. Children stop to watch, papers blow in the wind, and we’re officially lost. I have cell service, but pulling up my map app won’t help. Cyahinda isn’t ON the map. This is why we’re here! The irony isn’t lost on us.

We eventually find our way, but I can’t shake the feeling that if we’d been emergency responders, we’d have been too late. It’s an eerie sentiment not only because this town is so prone to disasters, but because 70% of the planet isn't on the map either.

Mapping areas like Cyahinda can ensure that first responders and medical help get to families on time, evacuation plans take every household into account, houses and schools aren’t built in areas prone to landslides, water points are installed equitably amongst the population, and so on.

We have several more days of mapping ahead of us—and the Rwanda Red Cross now has the tools and knowledge to do it themselves once we’re gone. All this information will be continuously uploaded into OpenStreetMap, where anyone can access it. 

Cyahinda is home to more than 10,000 people and it belongs on the map. Thanks to the hard work of volunteers, the map now belongs to Cyahinda.