Most Maps of the New Ebola Outbreak Are Wrong

Ed Kong in The Atlantic: “Almost all the maps of the outbreak zone that have thus far been released contain mistakes of this kind. Different health organizations all seem to use their own maps, most of which contain significant discrepancies. Things are roughly in the right place, but their exact positions can be off by miles, as can the boundaries between different regions.

Sinai, a cartographer at UCLA, has been working with the Ministry of Health to improve the accuracy of the Congo’s maps, and flew over on Saturday at their request. For each health zone within the outbreak region, Sinai compiled a list of the constituent villages, plotted them using the most up-to-date sources of geographical data, and drew boundaries that include these places and no others. The maps at the top of this piece show the before (left) and after (right) images….

Consider Bikoro, the health zone where the outbreak may have originated, and where most cases are found. Sinai took a list of all Bikoro’s villages, plotted them using the most up-to-date sources of geographical data, and drew a boundary that includes these places and no others. This new shape is roughly similar to the one on current maps, but with critical differences. Notably, existing maps have the village of Ikoko Impenge—one of the epicenters of the outbreak—outside the Bikoro health zone, when it actually lies within the zone.

 “These visualizations are important for communicating the reality on the ground to all levels of the health hierarchy, and to international partners who don’t know the country,” says Mathias Mossoko, the head of disease surveillance data in DRC.

“It’s really important for the outbreak response to have real and accurate data,” adds Bernice Selo, who leads the cartographic work from the Ministry of Health’s command center in Kinshasa. “You need to know exactly where the villages are, where the health facilities are, where the transport routes and waterways are. All of this helps you understand where the outbreak is, where it’s moving, how it’s moving. You can see which villages have the highest risk.”

To be clear, there’s no evidence that these problems are hampering the response to the current outbreak. It’s not like doctors are showing up in the middle of the forest, wondering why they’re in the wrong place. “Everyone on the ground knows where the health zones start and end,” says Sinai. “I don’t think this will make or break the response. But you surely want the most accurate data.”

It feels unusual to not have this information readily at hand, especially in an era when digital maps are so omnipresent and so supposedly truthful. If you search for San Francisco on Google Maps, you can be pretty sure that what comes up is actually where San Francisco is. On Google Street View, you can even walk along a beach at the other end of the world….(More)”.

But the Congo is a massive country—a quarter the size of the United States with considerably fewer resources. Until very recently, they haven’t had the resources to get accurate geolocalized data. Instead, the boundaries of the health zones and their constituent “health areas,” as well as the position of specific villages, towns, rivers, hospitals, clinics, and other landmarks, are often based on local knowledge and hand-drawn maps. Here’s an example, which I saw when I visited the National Institute for Biomedical Research in March. It does the job, but it’s clearly not to scale.