Dale Kunce wants to map the world. More specifically, he wants to plot parts of the world that remain uncharted. That doesn’t just include lands still unexplored, but large swaths of the undeveloped world with dense populations. A senior geospatial engineer at the American Red Cross, Kunce is one of the leaders of the Missing Maps Project. Launched earlier this month, the Missing Maps Project aims to tap a global network of volunteers to plot data about streets, buildings, rivers, mountains and other geographical features to improve the response of humanitarian groups. It’s the brainchild of the American Red Cross, British Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders and the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team.
Tell me a bit about your background. How did you come to work for the American Red Cross?
I came to the Red Cross just a year and a half ago, actually. I was working here in D.C. as a government contractor, and I was doing innovative work, but not really feeling that human connection. So one night I was flipping through different job [listings], and came across the job at the Red Cross.
One of the highlights of my career is I helped with a weather project where we put an application in the International Space Station so the astronauts could take pictures of Earth. But I wanted that human connection of getting a little bit more value out of my day everyday.
How has the American Red Cross used mapping in the past? When did you start using open data?
My team supports a lot of long-term projects in 30-plus countries. The response work [after a natural disaster] has really turbocharged how we think [about maps] and how we act in a lot of different ways. One of the reasons I was hired is to open things up, to be that paradigm shift.
For us, that big moment was Typhoon Haiyan. That storm affected 16 million people in the Philippines and my team, a ragtag group of interns, volunteers and a couple staff, were making products on the fly. People would ask for something, and we would make it on the fly to help them understand what was going on.
We worked with open source groups to map the Philippines. That map really ended up driving a lot of what we ended up doing in the Philippines. Our field teams were using the maps our volunteers were making to distribute aid [and] determine how to get from place to place. [We realized] this is how we should be doing things. We should do things with open data and open source.
How did the Missing Maps Project come about? What is the goal?
What if instead of mapping right after the storm, what if all that data existed prior to the storm or prior to the event? That’s what Missing Maps is all about. Our goal for the next two years is to put 20 million people on the map. To give you an idea of how big that is, it’s basically putting an area the size of New York City on the map every year.
What role do individual communities play in making the maps?
When the remote mappers do something, it’s really just squares and lines, There’s no color and context to that map. We go and we work with communities to add in all of that data. Where are your evacuation centers? Where are your schools? Where are your churches? Where are your restaurants?
Often that data is [then made] available on free and open-sourced platforms so anyone can see that data, whether they are in the community or outside the community. It’s really just jump-starting a lot of the data needs for these communities so they can advocate for themselves
What impact do you expect to have creating these maps?
The [maps allow us] to design better programs so we can be more efficient with the money we do have and to be more efficient in talking with the community members who are most vulnerable. But it’s also a chance for us to hear and see a little bit more about the community that we may have missed.
The community gets better maps and better data. That really empowers people to make decisions and empowers them to stand up to traditional power structures that may not be in their favor because they’re very vulnerable. We need to engage the community to support itself in mapping and give us the information.
Is the imagery and data readily available? Where does it come from?
It really varies from community to community, but it’s very much a partnership. It’s not us going there and telling them what’s on the map. It’s us going there and listening to them tell us what is on the map.
In the Philippines, for example, the mapping community is amazing. Whereas a community in Rwanda will need a little more help. We’ll [use] technology tools, but we’ll also [use] very simple paper-based tools [that work even] if the technology fails.
We partner with the State Department to get satellite imagery. They are a great resource for us.
How do you ensure accuracy?
The map is only as good as how current it is. That’s where the technology ... comes in. Basically what it allows anybody to do is update the information, and that information on the map gets better over time.
Once you generate the maps, what innovations can come from that?
Maps are always an innovation because where there was nothing before now there is something. You have Google Maps on your phone, and it tells you where everything is. There are more people in the world who are not on the map than anyone has ever counted.
The innovation for us on the Red Cross side is recognizing that open data is where we need to go. We even have a couple new technologies that we’re bringing to the table, such as the ability for anyone to update the map in their community with a few clicks on their phone. This is a true collaboration.
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