Epidemiologists are turning to the Internet and geographic information systems to make online maps that trace the origin and monitor the spread of the deadly Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

While online maps like Google Earth show detailed street views of major cities and towns in the world, it is lacking some depth in its geographic coverage of Africa. Many villages and towns in the impoverished continent feature few streets, misplaced landmarks or are simply non-existent in online maps. This is problematic for many reasons, none of them more apparent today than the difficulty of tracking infections during the recent Ebola virus outbreak.

The infection has so far claimed 95 lives, with 151 confirmed cases in Guinea and 5 cases in Liberia as of April 7, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The agency says the outbreak may last for several months and admits it is "one of the most challenging" it has ever faced. Ebola is one of the most lethal pathogens with a fatality rate of up to 90 percent. First identified in 1976, sporadic outbreaks occur in Central and West Africa, where fruit bats and wild animals initially pass the virus to humans and then human-to-human transmission happens through exhange of bodily fluids. There is currently no cure and no vaccine available.

WHO is working with relief agencies and non-governmental organizations in tackling the outbreak in areas which are considered some of the most remote and overlooked in the world. One tool they need is an updated, comprehensive map of affected areas. However, public health authorities in Guinea, where the outbreak started, only has typographic maps to rely on and existing online maps are unreliable and not detailed enough.

Google Earth and Google Maps usually provide online maps of areas affected by disasters and epidemics such as the current Ebola virus outbreak. However, some of these maps may not be updated, a crucial knowledge gap in a situation where timely response against disease depends on accurate information of the places affected.

Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), the international medical humanitarian organization, wanted more updated and detailed maps than what was available so they turned to the Humanitarian Open Street Map Team (HOT) for help. According to the mapping group's website, OpenStreetMap is a "project to create a free and open map of the entire world, built entirely by volunteers surveying with GPS, digitizing aerial imagery, and collecting and liberating existing public sources of geographic data."

Responding to MSF's request, the mapping team then tapped its 244 contributors to add and edit a million new features such as houses, buildings, roads and creeks into a digital map of the city of Guéckédou in Guinea, the center of the outbreak. The new digital map was ready in less than 20 hours, and MSF workers have been using it to go from street to street and house to house to confirm new cases and determine a pattern of spread. The online map can be seen online or downloaded and volunteers are constantly updating the map by the minute.

HOT has previously worked on a similar project for the Democratic Republic of the Congo to map out a city and surrounding areas to locate the source of a cholera outbreak. The group was also involved in the recovery and relief efforts for Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines by providing aid agencies with digital maps.

The group says free geodata that is provided by volunteers on the ground and online "can help save and improve lives in times of political crisis and natural disasters." These online collaborative maps can help epidemiologists in West Africa in the scramble to contain the deadly Ebola epidemic.

Digital maps are part of geographic information systems (GIS) which are "automated systems for the capture, storage, retrieval, analysis, and display of spatial data" according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The use of GIS is huge for public health, epidemiology and telehealth, where it can help gather and analyze spatial information and then use findings in decision making. Traditionally available using mainframe computers and desktops, GIS is expanding because of the advent of the Internet and mobile technologies, which allows digital maps to be created, edited and shared by larger groups of people online anytime, anywhere.