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A Mapping Interface That Saves Lives

MapSwipe’s clever design encourages users to map remote locations, helping aid workers find people during humanitarian crises. The app is an honoree in Fast Company’s 2017 Innovation By Design Awards.

A Mapping Interface That Saves Lives
Designer Sadok Cervantes worked with major global aid organizations to turn lifesaving landmark-identification work into a fun way for anyone, anywhere, to pass the time. [Illustration: Ed Fairburn]

MapSwipe is an honoree in the 2017 Innovation By Design Awards, Fast Company‘s annual celebration of the best ideas in design. See the rest of the winners, finalists, and honorable mentions here.

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If you heard an app described as “Tinder, but for humanitarian relief,” you’d probably think you were watching an episode of HBO’s satirical TV series Silicon Valley. But MapSwipe—a collaborative effort by Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières), the American Red Cross, and other nonprofits—was pitched in just that way to Sadok Cervantes, the app’s lead product designer, by developers at MSF in March 2016. “My initial reaction was, ‘Not another app aboard the hype train, please!’ ” recalls Cervantes, whose freelance design practice caters to humanitarian causes. “But I knew their intentions were in the right place—they wanted the app to be easy, accessible, and usable by everyone. The swipeable-card interface definitely checks all three of those.”

MSF’s developer team had thought that the Tinder model would be the best approach for addressing the problem of locating people in remote and largely unmapped regions when disaster strikes. In order to contain disease outbreaks—such as the 2015 measles epidemic in Congo—aid organizations must vaccinate everyone in the affected area as quickly as possible. But pinpointing where people actually live in the locations most vulnerable to the kinds of medical emergencies, natural disasters, and humanitarian crises that MSF and Red Cross tackle, and figuring out how to reach them, isn’t as simple as firing up Google Maps. Basic information about population centers and road networks often doesn’t exist at all, so aid workers have to create ad hoc maps from satellite imagery—a lengthy and tedious process when time equals lives saved (or lost). The concept behind MapSwipe: Crowdsource this work by parceling out small sections of raw satellite imagery to the smartphones of people anywhere in the world and have them identify dwellings and thoroughfares. Users can select one of several mapping “missions” to undertake, such as “Botswana Malaria Control” or “Disease elimination on Bijagos islands”; the app then shows a small chunk of the satellite view that’s divided by a grid into six tiles. From there, users follow simple instructions like “identify buildings” or “look for huts” by selecting any tiles that contain those features. The app provides a handy tutorial for recognizing them: buildings and huts, for example, appear conspicuously geometric in satellite imagery, which helps them stand out from the natural landscape. Once a volunteer is done inspecting the image, she moves onto another one needing her attention.

Related: Announcing The Winners Of The 2017 Innovation By Design Awards

The app provides a first pass on the raw satellite imagery and makes NGOs’ and aid organizations’ official mapping efforts more efficient. It also delivers a significant dose of do-gooder pride to first-world users, who can accurately claim to be helping save lives merely by poking at photos on their phones. (Beat that, Instagram!) To maximize MapSwipe’s appeal to these casual users, the developers originally wanted Cervantes to clone Tinder’s interface, which is how it got its name. But something about that approach seemed off to the designer. “I said, ‘I know you want young people to use it. You want as many people as possible to use it. But in this case, it will not work.’ ”

Cervantes, whose design portfolio includes projects for the MIT Media Lab and Lufthansa, cited the research of usability expert Don Norman in arguing that a “swipe right” interface—while lightweight and fun when applied to online dating—would actually create more work for users already being asked to do something requiring real concentration (i.e., examining blurry satellite photos). “The moment you swipe something away, it’s off your radar,” Cervantes explains. “If you then bring it back again and ask someone to take a closer look, it increases your cognitive load”—Norman’s term for mental effort. “We don’t want that, because we don’t want people to see using this app as a chore.”

After testing several user-interface approaches, Cervantes arrived at a solution that preserved Tinder’s simple, swipe-based interaction for navigating between different chunks of satellite imagery, but removed the confusing experience of having to swipe again on individual tiles in order to label them: Users can mark tiles that contain huts, houses, or roads simply by tapping them—literally “putting families on the map,” as the app’s tagline describes it. Cervantes intended this UX to compete with time-wasting games that might already be on someone’s phone. “We live in an era where many people feel like they need to be productive all the time,” he explains. “If you start playing a game on your phone, you feel guilty. With MapSwipe, you may be passing the time, but that time is spent contributing to a greater cause.”

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Cervantes’s insight paid off: Since its release just over a year ago, MapSwipe has aggregated more than 12 million taps, mapping over 420,000 square kilometers—more than the total area of Germany—in places like Myanmar, Guatemala, and sub-Saharan Africa, whose inhabitants would otherwise be invisible to medical aid organizations. (One user bragged to The Guardian that she “managed to map 100 square kilometers of Nigeria” while watching TV.) Recent MapSwipe initiatives have helped deliver antimalarial sprays to vulnerable residents in Laos and assisted people displaced by cyclones that have ravaged Madagascar. If a particularly nasty disaster occurs, MapSwipe can even send out push notifications to its roughly 16,000 active users to rally them around the cause. “It feels like a Bat-signal,” Cervantes says. As opposed to just reaching out on social media after a crisis, “you are actually contributing to these people in distress, and that’s a real connection.”

About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.

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