Wiki map aims to help rebuild shattered Zimbabwe
(New Scientist Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) AID workers in Zimbabwe need all the help that they can get, so a website that enables them to share information could be a big boost. Although Zimbabwe's cholera outbreak is finally showing signs of abating, the site could help relief groups as they attempt to rebuild the country's shattered infrastructure.
Launched this month, WikiMapAid will use collaborative wiki software to enable humanitarian workers and others to add health, welfare and education information to a version of Google Maps that can be viewed by anyone. The hope is that by circumventing official information channels, a clearer picture of what is happening on the ground can develop.
As went to press, a total of 89,649 cases of cholera and 4041 deaths had been reported in Zimbabwe since the outbreak began in August. But new cholera cases have fallen from around 8000 a week at the start of the year to 2151 in the first week of March. A central control centre was also recently set up in Harare with help from the Zimbabwean Ministry of Health.
Nevertheless, collecting data is still proving difficult, says Paul Garwood of the World Health Organization. "A crucial element for the control of cholera in Zimbabwe is the need to improve access to information, and the monitoring of new cases and suspected cases in the country," he says. "Any system that improves data collecting and sharing would be beneficial."
That's where WikiMapAid could help. Users can create markers to show the location of places such as schools, hospitals or refugee centres, and they can attach links to video or photos of that place, or post a report of the current situation in the area. Similar services, such as the website HealthMap, have recently been developed to map disease outbreaks around the world.
At the moment, WikiMapAid is focusing on Zimbabwe, and as well as schools and suchlike, the tool lets you create other categories of marker to show not only the location of cholera outbreaks but also places like food and water distribution centres, says Rupert Douglas-Bate of Global Map Aid, the organisation leading the project. Users can also create new marker categories to show, say, public buildings, or to mark disease outbreaks in other countries.
The website is based on a Brazilian project called Wikicrimes, launched last year, in which members of the public share information about crime in their local area. It is designed to provide an alternative source of crime figures to official statistics, which some suspect of government manipulation, according to Vasco Furtado at the University of Fortaleza in Brazil, who developed the software for Wikicrimes and WikiMapAid. "Wikicrimes is a way of showing citizens that a particular area is a problem and to push the government to do something about it," he says.
Douglas-Bate hopes a similar approach in Zimbabwe could help ensure that aid is distributed correctly. "If we've all got the same situation report then we're all singing from the same hymn sheet," he says. Also, if people feel they will attract attention from the authorities by posting information, they could perhaps get friends on the outside to post information for them, he says.
As with all wikis, the integrity of the data will depend on the people supplying it. Although moderators will edit and keep track of postings, Douglas-Bate admits unreliable reporting could be a problem. To lessen this risk, Furtado is developing an algorithm that will rate the reputation of users according to whether the information they post is corroborated, or contradicted. "But even if we're just 80 per cent perfect, we will still have made a huge step forward in terms of being able to galvanise public opinion, raise funds, prioritise need and speed the aid on those who need it most," Douglas-Bate says.
Tracking a diseaseLinda Geddes Cholera breaks out in a remote part of a developing country and officials at the district capital are swamped by requests for help. Healthcare workers are scattered across the sparsely populated countryside and the situation is changing hour by hour. How can health services keep track of the situation and decide where to send aid first?
From this June a marriage of cellphone and internet technology may help them cope. Cellphones are now widespread in many poor nations, and rather than health workers communicating individually, the new service, called GeoChat, will create an online map of their locations and any information they have to offer. Once up and running, it will coordinate relief efforts and ensure people are aware of who is doing what, and where.
Health workers start by creating a group on the GeoChat website that contains the contact details of all relevant people. Once the group is set up, workers will be able to text the other members via a special number. The text of each message is also relayed to the GeoChat map and appears next to the sender's location. Senders can identify their location by placing their coordinates or an address at the start of the message.
Watching the map of the messages will be like tracking the epidemiology of a disease in real time, says Eric Rasmussen of Innovative Support to Emergencies, Diseases and Disasters, a non-profit organisation based in Palo Alto, California, that developed GeoChat.
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