An Open-source Geospatial Application to Support the Ebola Response
A dynamic and complex crisis
The ongoing Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo presents a clear threat to global public health security. The North Kivu Province, which shares a border with Uganda and Rwanda, has seen an estimated 1,866 cases and 1,241 deaths to date. Contact tracing, deployment of medical resources, and adoption of preventive social practices have been hampered by surging violent conflict in the region, widespread misinformation about the response efforts, and a fragmented data environment.
A pressing need for situational awareness
Our engagement with the response coalition, which spans the humanitarian, national security and civil service sectors, uncovered a common pain point: the complex variables associated with the North Kivu outbreak are simply not visible in a shared common environment, let alone ready for real-time analysis. Epidemiological case data is officially published in mapping products that exist independently of data related to conflict, population change and local infrastructure.
Moreover, what products do exist are produced with licensed software through a closed-source environment that can be neither replicated and improved by research groups nor supplemented with local data for local use.
This prohibits nongovernmental organizations, universities, government agencies and local users from customizing geospatial products for their own interests and needs, including adding data that could be critical for the response community. In addition, users of the official publications cannot readily conduct analyses of the officially published data and are not able to directly download the input information.
The result of this fragmented data environment is a lack of situational awareness which heightens the risk that decisions are made with incomplete information or faulty assumptions. In addition, these conditions make it difficult to prioritize increasingly-limited resources. The response coalition must focus on the highest-priority daily emergencies, which, understandably, do not typically include technology development.
An open-source, integrated solution
To meet this need, we have created an open-source, fully integrated geospatial visualization and analysis tool that can be utilized and improved by the global community. The application prototype, built using the Mapbox GL JS API, is now available to view, and the source code is publicly available in Github. We also created a data wiki with a dedicated page for each of the key layers in the application with links to sources and local copies of each dataset.
Key data features
- The platform integrates all relevant geospatial data sources in a single field of view. This includes one of the first applications of the Facebook/Columbia University’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network high resolution population density datasets.
- Users can clone the project and create a private version that incorporates additional data sources. This additional data can be either private or publicly released, at the discretion of the data provider.
- All data sources are fully documented and available for download.
Key design features
- Users can inspect the code responsible for the integration, manipulation and visualization of all datasets.
- Research teams from around the world can improve the design and functionality of the published application.
- Viewing, analyzing and editing the application can all be done using open-source tools, eliminating the need to purchase proprietary software.
Uncovering barriers in the data environment
Beyond the development of the UI, many of the challenges our team faced were related to data formats and compatibility. As a result, we were able to add value by automating processes and conducting more complex conversions with the resources of a world-class research university. However, data providers can eliminate these barriers for contributors with limited resources by adopting geospatial data standards and best practices. Simple adjustments upstream can then make considerable impact on downstream workflow.
How to participate
Greater visibility of complex crises can fundamentally change the way that organizations prioritize their resources and efforts, which in turn can save lives and increase social stability. This project aims to increase situational awareness for the Ebola response coalition, and to create a mechanism for easy replication to different humanitarian contexts in the process. You can help by contributing data, by directly improving the application using the source code, or simply by sharing feedback with our team at firstname.lastname@example.org.