GRASP Supports CDC Ebola Response

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The 2014 Ebola epidemic is the largest in history— affecting multiple countries in West Africa and leaving death, despair, and devastation in its wake. Scores of professionals from around the world, including CDC staff and volunteers, are working tirelessly to stop the virus in its tracks and save lives.

Have you wondered how, in the midst of this epidemic, CDC staff and volunteers are able to locate people—even in the most remote villages of West Africa? Read on to learn how the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Division of Toxicology and Human Health Sciences, (ATSDR/DTHHS) is contributing to this effort through its Geospatial Research, Analysis and Services Program (GRASP).

Mapping and Location Expertise

According to GRASP environmental health scientist, Brian Kaplan, “Much like the maps in Churchill’s war room during WWII, we need to know quickly and accurately where to take the fight, where our public health troops are, and where to put the resources to combat this deadly disease. The extraction of locational information from reports, management of the spatial data, and the rapid mapping of the cases are crucial to this battle.”

GRASP is supporting the CDC Ebola Response with its mapping and location expertise in

gps and two people in the alps

  • geospatial science
  • cartography
  • spatial statistics
  • data management
  • GIS and information technologies
  • satellite imagery

Developing Detailed Country Maps

GRASP’s initial contribution to the outbreak response was developing detailed country maps showing city and village locations. The maps also showed how the transportation system is organized. GRASP employees reprinted these maps numerous times for staff in Atlanta and for those deploying to West Africa. The maps provide a general understanding of the affected countries and serve as a reference for the locations of the disease. They also indicate where staff will be working and provide indications of potentially affected populations.

“Maps in many developing countries may not be like U.S. maps that can include detailed information about the locations of roads, rivers, governmental buildings, cities, and other geospatial data,” said Kaplan. “Therefore, staff rely on the data and map details generated by GRASP to find every reported village and road to reach the affected population.”

However, existing information about the villages was insufficient for creating maps. To create the maps, GRASP drew upon its satellite imagery and digital location information of manmade structures, natural features, and knowledge of existing data. In addition, GRASP obtained a large resource library of satellite imagery, which is being used to identify villages previously not reported on any map. GRASP has contributed some of these data to the Openstreetmap community, a social network also mapping the affected countries using satellite imagery.

Developing Detailed City Maps

GRASP began making detailed maps at the city level, as staff and volunteers required more detailed information about these places.


“More recently, we have begun to work with other responding non-government organizations to coordinate the production of maps and generation of geospatial data. We are also working closely with the Emergency Operations Center Situation Awareness Team and the Ebola Epi Team sharing the production of the maps and using everyone’s strengths,” said Kaplan. “One important task we are considering is mapping every village with an Ebola case to provide a near real-time situational awareness of the current location and movement of the disease. However, matching reported village names to names in our database is very time consuming because of alternate spellings or because our database is not complete. These maps would provide important knowledge on where to send staff and to ensure resources and infrastructure are in the correct place to combat this disease.”

Learn more about GRASP and its contributions to protecting human health. Get the facts on Ebola.


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Page last reviewed: July 9, 2015
Page last updated: July 9, 2015