Mapathon to Aid Humanitarian Efforts: Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders

- Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders Holds Second Missing Maps Mapathon in SingapoRe

By Carolyn Oei, 13 May 2018

Cover photo: Carolyn Oei

The thing about conversations is that when they’re interesting, they’re riveting and you lose track of time and before you know it, it’s time for the tea break.

The international medical humanitarian organisation, Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF), held its second “Doctors Without Borders Missing Maps Mapathon” on 5 May 2018 in Singapore at the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine.

We were there to see what actually happens at a mapathon and had the opportunity to speak with student volunteers, a technology volunteer and three field volunteers; all conversations that turned out to be extremely insightful.

A mapathon is essentially a co-ordinated mapping event. Participants are invited to make online map improvements to a particular area, which helps to improve knowledge and insight, which in turn aids disaster risk assessments and energy management. Ultimately, the mapping contributes to better responses to crises. MSF uses OpenStreetMap to store map data.

As with last year’s event, the focus area was Niger State in Nigeria. According to technology volunteer, Paul Amazona from DataKind Singapore, participants this year were plotting buildings - to add to the 6,653 buildings mapped in 2017. Explaining why the focus was again Niger, MSF’s Missing Maps Communications and Community Engagement Manager, Jan Böhm, said, “It is a huge area that we’ve decided to map as MSF regularly intervenes in various emergencies in the country, especially with disease outbreaks. We have been working on it since last year, and expect to complete the mapping by (this) July.”

Photo: Carolyn Oei - Paul Amazona, DataKind Singapore, assisting a mapathon volunteer.

Photo: Carolyn Oei - The mapping happens in real time, with maps projected on big screens so that everyone can see them as they go.

There was an encouraging mix of participants across a wide age range, from Gen X to Gen Z. Two students who study Environmental Earth Systems Science at the Nanyang Technological University said that they signed up because the subject matter was for a good cause and relatable. They were already familiar with geographic information system software and wanted to see how OpenStreetMap worked.   

Photos: MSF - It was encouraging to see children and teenagers doing their bit as well.

Photos: Carolyn Oei

Even if it might seem like a fun and productive afternoon doing geeky things, mapping is extremely crucial to humanitarian work.

“The mapping work is very important for our logisticians and the movement of medicine and equipment,” said emergency doctor Lim Chin Siah. Lim is a regular MSF field worker and has volunteered on missions to Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen.

Echoing Lim’s sentiments, obstetrician/gynaecologist Veronica Ventura added, “There’s so much that goes on in the back-end, which we don’t necessarily have to worry about. That’s why it’s so interesting for us to be here today to witness this mapathon.”

But one field worker who does have to at least think about maps and directions is Alvin Teo, a pharmacist who was most recently in the Ukraine. Considered a bit of a missions veteran by Lim and Ventura – Teo has been on six missions to date – Teo said, “It is definitely important work and updated maps have helped me, working with the logistics team to get medicine and equipment to where they need to be.”

Getting help to people who need it is a task fraught with challenges in the shape of politics, prejudices and other obstacles. Commenting on how MSF is sometimes the only healthcare provider in a crisis area, Lim said, “I don’t know how our logistics teams do it, but they get us in there!”

Our conversation with the field workers covered tales of getting diarrhoea medicine from Europe to a remote part of Ethiopia in 10 days, sipping tea on a balcony in Syria as airstrikes happened not two kilometres away and hiding hair brushes in gas masks.

And then it was time for the tea break.

The mapping continues and MSF will be holding another one later in the year.

Note: As Médecins Sans Frontières (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.

Photo: Carolyn Oei - L to R: Lim Chin Siah, Veronica Ventura, Alvin Teo.