Better Maps, Less Cholera?

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Why you should care

Because it’s harder to do good without a good map.

Much like the rainy season, outbreaks of cholera return every year to Bangladesh’s crowded slums, where millions throughout the country contract the diarrheal disease. Unless patients get help quickly, it can infect, spread and kill within just hours. And without a detailed map, patients who contract cholera can’t tell doctors precisely where they live, making it harder for health workers to intervene quickly. That’s where Dr. Eric J. Nelson — and his digital maps — come into play.

As a Stanford University pediatric global health physician and scientist, Nelson has treated cholera in developing countries like Haiti and Bangladesh for years. Now he has a grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop an app that could pinpoint cholera outbreaks as they spread through rural villages. To help fill in blanks like missing roads or bridges, Nelson has turned to Stanford’s Geospatial Center — with free software and mostly donated digital images (some cost $5,000) — to create a base map using a digital platform created by the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team. Think of it like a Wikipedia of maps, where anyone with a Web browser can trace and update the geographic details of crises around the globe.

Collaborative mapping isn’t unique to this project, of course. Ushahidi, a nonprofit software company, was an early pioneer and pinpointed post-election violence in Kenya in 2008, then helped following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti by using volunteers to tell crisis responders where, exactly, people were trapped. Digital crisis maps soon emerged following natural disasters in Chile, Colombia, Pakistan, the Philippines and Vanuatu. You can even contribute to their mapping efforts in post-earthquake Nepal right now.

By mapping blank areas of the world as Nelson’s project is attempting, experts say they’ve building a free tool that could soon play a greater role in studying and curing disease, rather than simply battling the symptoms. And, if all goes according to plan, the technology could be used for other outbreaks, like Ebola.

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