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The Misplaced Billion

Ivan Gayton’s on a quest to put 1 billion people on a map for the first time

INNOVATION

FRANCESCA LEONARDI

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.

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