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Groundbreaking new project to tackle lack of maps in humanitarian emergencies

Press release | London, 4th October 2018, 13:00 GMT

In emergencies, humanitarian actors are often confronted with a lack of maps, which are crucial to take decisions quickly, ultimately saving lives. To address this issue, Humanity & Inclusion (HI) and crowdAI launched the Mapping challenge. The five best solutions are being presented at the 5th International Conference on Data Science and Advanced Analytics, held in Turin on October 1st to 4th, 2018.

The challenge
In emergency situations, such as natural disasters or conflicts, humanitarians need recent and precise maps of the damaged or destroyed area. “We need to get a clear picture of the situation in order to take the right decisions quickly,” explains Paul Vermeulen, Project manager for Strategic Innovation at HI. “We also need regular updates of these maps during our interventions”.

Many parts of the world have not been mapped. For instance, in developing countries settlements of several thousand inhabitants can be mentioned by simple roads on the maps available. Especially the most marginalized areas, that is, those most vulnerable to natural disasters, are not accurately represented. 

Without accurate maps, it is a huge challenge for international organisations to identify resources and plan an effective emergency response. Obtaining maps of these potential crisis areas greatly improves the preparations, planning and implementation of emergency actions” explains Lars Bromley, principal analyst and research advisor at UNOSAT. “UNOSAT and others have long worked hard to provide such information. More data for mapmaking is always a crucial need and one of our primary focuses”.

Saving lives with algorithms 
Satellite imagery is readily available to humanitarian organisations, but translating these images into maps is an intensive effort. Today maps are produced by specialized organisations or in volunteer events such as mapathons [1], where satellite imagery is annotated with roads, buildings, farms, rivers etc.

Images of the earth are increasingly available from a variety of sources, including nano-satellites, drones and conventional high altitude satellites. “Today, the data market is booming and actors buy those images at unaffordable prices. It is an emergency for NGOs and civil society actors to develop partnerships with the scientific and private sectors, in order to access maps at reasonable cost.” continues Vermeulen.

HI launched its first Mapping challenge in partnership with crowdAI and with the support of UNOSAT and UN Global Pulse. The mission, for over 50 participating researchers, was to produce maps of buildings using machine learning. 

Over two months, the researchers developed and tested algorithms capable of turning accurately the pixels from satellite images into features on a maps. crowdAI then evaluated each contribution. Out of 717 algorithms, they identified the 5 best performing ones. 

A big hope for populations living in unmapped zones 
This is a big hope for populations living in unmapped zones” says Paul Vermeulen. ”With the mapping challenge, we are identifying new actors and possible solutions to make recently updated maps more accessible. In addition, we are confident that innovation will allow new partnerships for increased access to updated maps”. 

Platforms developed by start-ups for automated image analysis will soon be tested. Areas contaminated by landmines can be captured in high definition by cameras and various sensors attached to drones and analyzed by these platforms. HI, a leading actor in demining activities will be testing new technologies in 2019.

[1] Mapathons are events where places such as cities are mapped using GPS (global positioning system) devices.
- Interviews with HI’s experts available upon request

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Marlene Sigonney, Humanity & Inclusion UK
Tel: +44 (0)870 774 3737 | +44 (0)7508 810 520
About Humanity & Inclusion
Co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Humanity & Inclusion (the new name of Handicap International) is a charity working in situations of poverty and exclusion, conflict and disaster. We work tirelessly alongside disabled and vulnerable people to help meet their basic needs, improve their living conditions and promote respect for their dignity and fundamental rights.

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