GiS — The Unsung Hero Of Crisis Control

From Cholera outbreaks to Crisis Aid, ordinary people achieved the extraordinary armed with just a map.

Paris at Night from above. Credit: Dennis Kummer

Anyone who knows me, knows I have a singular gift for getting lost. So I love maps. And, hate them too… it’s a complicated relationship. At the heart of this affair is the blithe assumption that the entire world is mapped, that there isn’t a place on this planet left unchartered — after all, the first satellite images the earth were taken on the sub-orbit V2 flight in October 1946 — more than 70 years ago. So if we know anything about anything, surely it’s the surface of the earth.

It turns out that assumption isn’t entirely true, and it isn’t exactly true because how we plot co-ordinates and draw up terrain, is an entirely different thing to how we represent information about place — like streets. 
A map of the African continent isn’t the same as a map of African Nations, which in turn isn’t the same as a street map. Each of those is an example of geographic information. The shape of natural land isn’t the shape of land as we understand it, so even though we do have an intricate view of the world’s terrain — it’s not necessarily the same thing as how we intend to navigate that place.

In our digitally driven world, we potentially hold a lot of information about places, and this data is gathered in Geographic Information Systems (GiS).

In London there’s a lot of demand and reliance on geographic information: detailed street maps, ordnance surveys documenting private land from public land; councils with databases of all the locations of their street lamps and public bins — the list goes on, and on. The potential for that information to be used to improve public services, enhance the delivery and personalisation of medical care and deliver operational efficiencies is vast. It can also be used to for fun projects, for instance, kicking off a debate that it’s no longer six degrees of separation that connects us all, but (thanks to social media) four degrees - and it could turn fun debate into factual argument.

So let’s look at an examples of just how profound GiS can be in practice — and how devastating when it’s absent.

How a water pump in Soho, a doctor and a map stopped a Cholera outbreak

In 1854— Victorian London, the age of Dickens, a humble map played a central role in stopping a Cholera epidemic that had been sweeping through the streets, leaving thousands dead in its wake. This is the story of how a doctor, John Snow, a baby, a map and a water-pump in Soho overturned Miasma Theory and proved Cholera wasn’t an airborne virus — and was, in fact, spreading as a result of a contaminated water supply.

The medical profession stuck to the belief Cholera was spread in the air, much the same way a barnacle clings to a rock.

So it was no easy task for Snow to dislodge them from it.

To appreciate the struggle he contended with, it’s worth remembering that in 1854, London was at that time, the largest city ever built and home to around 2.5 million people. A densely populated megalopolis with no running water or sewage drains because the Victorians were trying, simultaneously, to live through — and invent — the scale of living we now call Metropolitan.

That’s 2.5 million people who daily disposed of their raw sewage by tossing it into their basements, creating 3ft deep cesspools. A city where millions of people kept livestock from chicken to cows in their attics, a lively metropolis connected together by horse-drawn carts and carriages. It would have been a place suffocated by an unimaginable stench; and it would have been perfectly reasonable to assume the heavily polluted air was the culprit in carrying the disease around the city.

Snow thought differently. He didn’t believe Cholera was airborne, but was in fact being spread in the water. Unfortunately, he was one single voice speaking out against the entrenched wisdom of his profession, and despite arguing for years with anyone who would listen, he convinced exactly no one of his theory, and was basically ignored by everyone.

So when people started to contract the virus close to where he lived in Soho, Snow began recording cases of cholera he diagnosed on a map, and a disturbing pattern emerged. The residents of Soho went out of their way to draw water from a particular pump in Broad Street, believing it had the best water in London.

Original map by John Snow showing the clusters of cholera cases in the London epidemic of 1854, drawn and lithographed by Charles Cheffins.
On proceeding to the spot, I found that nearly all the deaths had taken place within a short distance of the [Broad Street] pump. There were only ten deaths in houses situated decidedly nearer to another street-pump. In five of these cases the families of the deceased persons informed me that they always sent to the pump in Broad Street, as they preferred the water to that of the pumps which were nearer. In three other cases, the deceased were children who went to school near the pump in Broad Street…

By plotting the cases he diagnosed on a map, Snow created a visual representation of the outbreak with the water pump at its epicentre, and armed with this proof of his concept, was able to shift the accepted understanding of the time, and prove that the disease was spread in water — ultimately saving thousands of lives, transforming public health services, and (we hope), living happily ever after.

The kindness of strangers

Moving on in time and space to January 12, 2010 — Haiti.

On a mostly insignificant Tuesday afternoon in Port-au-Prince, sometime just before 5pm, the earth collapsed as a force 7 earthquake swallowed up the entire city, killing hundreds killing hundreds of thousands and displacing millions. This apocalyptic natural disaster, from which the country is still trying to recover, is also a stunning example of how citizens — just ordinary people — pulled together from all around the world to help, filling the gap left by a stunned government unable to effectively respond to the crisis — and they did this by plotting information on to a map.

Haiti Earth Quake 2010. Credit — Wikipedia / Marcello Casal Jr/ABr

Patrick Meir — at the time, a student on mid-term break in North America, saw the disaster being played out on CNN and desperate to offer some help, he started picking up realtime tweets and social network posts crying for help from people using mobile phones in Port-au-Prince, and plotted these on a map; adding in pictures and videos where he could. In doing this, he essentially started to enrich the basic map of Port-au-Prince with layers of geographic information, making it the most compressive and up-to-date guide available to the humanitarian community in Haiti, who were working to deliver aid and relieve the crisis, in a smoking city whose basic infrastructure was destroyed, and which was rapidly spiralling completely out of control.

Credit: Ushahidi Haiti Project (UHP).

He didn’t do this alone. Using Facebook, he recruited and coordinated a stunning joint effort of volunteers across the world, using open source platforms and resourceful means to keep the map updated with relevant information, supporting the Crisis Aid operations in their day-to-day response in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.

The incredible thing about Patrick’s story is the power of compassion: the capacity of perfectly ordinary people with other responsibilities, and without special training to reach out and respond to those in crisis with jaw dropping efficiency. Meir orchestrated a global effort from volunteers who spoke different languages and were based in different timezones to achieve an effective response to a crisis in a country he, and his volunteers, weren’t even citizens of.

Patrick’s achievement in 2010, show our world is more interconnected than ever, and the way we use and interact with it is becoming ever more sophisticated, increasing our need — and expectation for — equally evolved services.

Very much like the Victorians we are simultaneously living in — and inventing — a new epoch; a digital revolution. The potential of GiS to deliver operational efficiencies for public services: for instance enabling councils to identify and repair potholes, street lamps, empty public bins and their constituents’ recycling bins; and manage their social housing stock strategically. It could be leveraged by hospitals in delivering personalised healthcare — someone living on Euston Road in Central London might present a higher probability of developing ailments relating to air pollution than someone living in York; like Snow’s map, unexpected patterns could emerge to motivate change, both in healthcare and public policy. The potential is vast, and like most things in life, has humble origins.

Further Reading

Ghost Maps — Steven Johnson
Patrick Meir — Change the world, one map at a time
Mapping and healthcare: can geographic data help service planning?
Mapping it out: software helps unpick housing managers’ problems