There still isn’t an accurate map showing where all the cases are coming from. “We need to see that, and to see where the contacts of the cases are,” says Ousmane Ly, a digital health advisor at the nonprofit PATH, who was seconded to the Ministry of Health in February. “This information is very important for us to see the progress of the epidemic and for the ministry and cabinet members to make decisions.”
Claire Halleux, a co-founder of OpenStreetMap DRC, has been helping, too. “Apart from the few main roads and rivers, even the emergency teams don’t know about where all the roads are,” she tells me. To fix that problem, she and other volunteers have used satellite imagery to mark the positions of buildings, rivers, waterways, roads, and other landmarks, creating a blank base map. People on the ground can then use smartphones or GPS receivers to label the map with accurate names.
“We have people basically mapping the area all day long,” Halleux says. “If you were looking at this area two weeks ago, you’d have found very little data. Since then, more than 300,000 objects have been added.”
This afternoon, Selo is leading an emergency meeting of the Référentiel Géographique Commun—a working group of everyone in the DRC who uses geospatial data. Their goal is to “all agree on a standardized set of data that everyone uses,” she tells me. Better maps should then be available to everyone working on the outbreak, but “these won’t be the final boundaries,” Selo says. “They’re not static. There will always be improvements as more data comes in and more validation is done.”
Sinai’s work isn’t confined to the current outbreak. When I met him in the Congo in March, he was three years into an effort to map several provinces, including Kwango, which is south of the current Ebola outbreak, and east of the capital of Kinshasa. He pulled up satellite images of villages and other settlements, which had been identified using machine-learning tools, and met with health-zone officials to label these correctly. “It’s mapping local knowledge onto digital reality,” he told me at the time.
In the office of Pierre Mwela Mangezi, the province’s medical director, Sinai presented his latest digital map, holding it up next to an older, rougher version that was hanging on the wall, and a simpler, hand-drawn one that was pinned to the door. “I’m going to need a bigger wall,” Mangezi joked.
The differences between the maps are subtle, but crucial. For example, some health areas that shared a border on the old maps no longer do on the new ones. “It’s very important,” Mangezi said. “This is the first time that we’ve had a map of all the health areas in the province. Every 3 weeks, we send people out to health centers, and the maps help with that. Sometimes when we do vaccinations, we forget certain villages, and the maps will help us remember.”