SDR Deposit of the Week: Earthworks in action against cholera

Zambian 2006 to 2010 Constituency and Ward Boundaries PURL

Inquiry from a hot zone

In late March of 2016, Frederic Ham, a geospatial analyst for Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF, also know as Doctors Without Borders) contacted Stanford University Libraries (SUL) looking for information. He needed data to help him create maps so that MSF could better plan their response to a current cholera outbreak in Zambia. He’d found what he wanted via SUL’s geospatial data portal, Earthworks, but wasn’t able to access it due to licensing restrictions. Was there any way we could help?


Earthworks is SUL’s innovative solution to preserving and providing access to Stanford’s geospatial data collections. Earthworks not only makes discoverable Stanford’s spatial data holdings, but those of many other institutions as well. Some of the content is publicly accessible, while some is licensed only for use at certain institutions.

By exposing as much data as possible through Earthworks, Stanford researchers can find out about the existence of much more than just what our library holds. And researchers from elsewhere in the world can find out about the existence of all kinds of data as well.

The search continues

I received the request from Frederic and, knowing that helping MSF find the data they needed could help save lives, went searching for a publicly-available source. I didn’t have to look far.

It turns out Stanford Graduate School of Business Ph.D. candidate, Nick Eubank, had created a different version of the data set for his own research

I sent Frederic Ham a link to Nick’s data set, which I thought might meet his needs. One of his analysts, at the time on the ground in Zambia, responded almost immediately:

"This is excellent data to work on (one of the best reconstitution of admin boundaries I have seen so far) until we get official Zambian datasets including population data etc. Our most sincere thanks to Stanford, Nick Eubank and yourself." - Jean-Guy Audeoud


Clearly, this data was useful and important to make available. So, I approached Nick about depositing the data into the Stanford Digital Repository (SDR) so that others could find it directly via Earthworks.

The SDR provides many advantages for research data: a persistent URL (PURL) at which the data can always be found, citability via that PURL, digital preservation of the content, and more. Once I explained this to Nick, he agreed without hesitation to have the data added to SUL’s holdings.

With Nick's approval, I went to his personal website to download the data and found that the link to the data file no longer worked. I smiled to myself and emailed Nick again:

"Nick, as if to illustrate the value of the SDR, the link to your Zambia Constituency Data seems to no longer function. Can you forward a copy of the ZIP file to me and I will work with Kim to see what else we need from you to get it into Earthworks?"

It turned out Nick had been updating the website the week before and had inadvertently broken the data links.

With Nick’s data finally in hand, I forwarded it to SUL’s geospatial metadata guru, Kim Durante, for processing. The data are now permanently available at their very own PURL. Data and attribute previews are also available in Earthworks

World Health Organization (WHO) Meeting

Less than four weeks after Frederic’s initial inquiry, I found myself sitting next to Caroline Voute, Emergency Coordinator/Head of Mission at MSF. We were at a meeting of the WHO’s Global Task Force on Cholera Control. "You wouldn't happen to know the name, Frederic Ham, would you?" I asked her. "Yes of course!” she said. “He’s our GIS Analyst."

I relayed the story of the Zambia data sets and how we were happy that we were able identify data that MSF could use. I asked if anyone had used the data yet and she showed me that they had!

Caroline Voûte (Emergency Coordinator / Head of Mission at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)) showing outbreak distribution maps created using Nick Eubank's Zambia data.

And so the story comes full circle. A piece of software developed by Stanford University Library, a piece of data created by the research of a Stanford graduate student, a cholera outbreak in Zambia, a WHO meeting in London, and the work of many passionate scholars at Stanford and beyond, combined to make a great story about the importance of spatial data availability. And we may have saved a few lives, too.