In 2016 and 2017, 3,000 Red Cross volunteers in Malawi visited roughly 100,000 houses in just three days to educate people about measles and rubella vaccines. The project required extensive planning and a lot of hard work, but it also benefited from some innovative technology: the world’s most detailed and accurate map of the local populations, created with help from a team of artificial intelligence researchers and data scientists at Facebook, working in collaboration with Columbia University’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN).
To generate these maps, a team of data scientists and AI researchers in the Facebook Boston office took a creative approach. They used publicly available population data and commercially available high-resolution satellite imagery, and then applied machine learning techniques to map hundreds of millions of structures distributed across vast areas.
Digital volunteers with the Missing Maps project — an initiative co-founded by the American Red Cross — used these AI-powered maps to filter out the 97 percent of the terrain in Malawi that is entirely uninhabited. Volunteers with Missing Maps, which is a collaborative effort by humanitarian organizations to map parts of the world that are most exposed to natural disasters and other crises — could then concentrate their efforts on mapping the remaining 3 percent, knowing that they weren't overlooking any small, remote communities. With guidance from the maps, Red Cross volunteers were able to locate communities so they could answer questions about the vaccination process and address the concerns of those who otherwise might not have brought their children to be immunized.
“Facebook’s high-resolution population maps have supported Humanitarian OpenStreetMap and Missing Maps’ mission of putting the world’s most at-risk places on the map,” says Tyler Radford, executive director of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, which participates in the Missing Maps project. “The maps from Facebook ensure we focus our volunteers’ time and resources on the places they're most needed, improving the efficacy of our programs.”