The Misplaced Billion
early on a recent morning, woodsmoke
wafted above the murmur of village life in Gorama, Sierra Leone, as Rupert Allen sat sweating in the shade of a concrete veranda. A member of Missing Maps—a humanitarian project that maps parts of the world vulnerable to natural disasters, conflicts and disease—allen tapped away on a small laptop next to a black goat and a small, tame monkey. Connected by a smartphone hot spot, Allen was in charge of mapping the nearby area.
This summer, the Missing Maps team spent months traveling to remote parts of Sierra Leone by motorcycle to chart them for the first time. Despite the ubiquity of Google Maps, there are many places on Earth where people and the terrain they live on haven’t been mapped. Globally, over a billion people are unaccounted for—literally not attached to a physical address in cartography or databases, which means they often don’t receive basic services. That number is growing; by 2020, there will be 1.5 billion people living in slums, the majority of whom are unmapped. Accounting for these people is important not just to better understand our world but also because there’s a direct link between people being not accounted for on maps and the risk of catastrophe for them—and, as the Ebola outbreak demonstrated, for the rest of us.
Ivan Gayton, the founder of Missing Maps, says his crew ventured so far into the bush in Sierra Leone this summer that even local team members were sometimes astonished when they came across villages where their maps had showed blank spaces. “You’re watching light dawn in their eyes, as they see no one has ever been here—no one has ever cared enough to come here,” he says. “There’s just people living in the forest hacking their own roads with machetes, essentially unknown to anyone.”
Gayton first became interested in cartography in 2010 when he was battling one of the worst cholera epidemics in history in post-earthquake Port-au-prince, Haiti. Then a field logistician for Doctors Without Borders, Gayton and the other medics in Port-au-prince asked all the patients who walked in where they lived. But because the