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When Mapping Saves Lives: Supporting the Ebola Response in DRC

While the world watched their soccer team compete in the World Cup qualifiers, the people in the Democratic Republic of Congo were fighting to contain an Ebola outbreak—for the fourth time since 2012. On May 8, the government of DRC declared the latest outbreak in Equateur Province. When it jumped a few days later to Mbandaka, a major transport hub along the Congo River that’s 150 km from the original case, the risk of Ebola spreading internationally became a reality.

Last week, World Health Organization’s Director-General Tedros Adhanom said the crisis was “far from over” and ongoing surveillance is critical. Despite proactive containment efforts, the response on the ground has struggled due to a lack of information about the affected communities. A report in The Atlantic notes that almost all the existing maps of the outbreak zones contain inaccuracies, and different health organizations are operating from disparate maps and sources of information.

Satellite imagery becomes a game changer in emergencies like this. The imagery provides a timely source of truth over even the most remote, forgotten areas of the world. That’s why Maxar’s DigitalGlobe is committed to supporting the brave efforts of our partners in the field, in hopes that putting those Congolese families on the map will help them receive the vaccines and medical care they deserve. To help the response, DigitalGlobe is publicly releasing building footprints produced on GBDX for Equateur Province in DRC, where towns like Ikoko Impenge have never been mapped. Using a combination of machine learning-based algorithms and very high-resolution satellite imagery, DigitalGlobe mapped the 130,000 km² of Equateur Province in a matter of days; moreover, these maps are incredibly accurate. Our in-country partners like PATH and Doctors without Borders are working closely with the Ministry of Health to ensure the data are operationalized immediately. DigitalGlobe was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop this technical approach specifically for global health interventions and is collaborating with the foundation, as well as the United Nations, to get the data into the hands of decision-makers and front-line health workers.

Additionally, Radiant Solutions, another Maxar Technologies company, is providing a roads data set and a Human Landscape data set for the Equateur Province. The roads data set will help health workers figure out how to best reach certain areas. The Human Landscape data set describes the environmental, physical and human geography of the area, including demographics, economies, ethnicities, medical facilities and more, which will provide invaluable insight for teams planning to assist in the Ebola response.

“Access to these building footprints, the road data and the Human Landscape data enables response organizations in the DRC to find the shortest distances between where they find cases of Ebola and critical emergency treatment units. It’s also possible to simulate past epidemics in order to predict future outbreaks, allowing for the DRC Ministry of Health and partners to plan for likely scenarios,” said Io Blair-Freese, Associate Program Officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

If you ask our partners working on the ground, these maps and the information they provide are mission critical. Putting the most isolated, remote communities on the map is more than just a technical exercise. It means that those households are known to the rest of the world and they can receive services and vaccines when a crisis like this happens. In today’s world, being on the map is a recognition of human rights and dignity, and those communities have a right to be seen. This is the true promise of machine learning and satellite imagery: to make a difference in the lives of people halfway across the world. Maxar Technologies’ purpose is to Build a Better World, and when we say world, we mean everyone, including the Congolese families at risk of Ebola.

You can access these data sets for Equateur Province, DRC through our Open Data Program. Please reach out to