The charity was founded as Aid for Aid in 1999 but became operational in 2003 and changed its name to MapAction. Its first emergency mission was to Sri Lanka in response to the Asian tsunami in December 2004. Since then it has sent teams to natural disasters including floods, earthquakes and hurricanes, worked in complex humanitarian emergencies such the Pakistan conflict in June 2009, and delivered geospatial support to landmine clearance programmes in the field.
MapAction has a small full-time staff but most of its capacity is provided by volunteers. Its volunteers are skilled with geographical information systems (GIS) and are trained by the charity to work in humanitarian emergencies. As well as responding to emergencies, the volunteers also provide training in GIS and GPS for other humanitarian organisations including the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
MapAction receives funding from several institutions, notably the UK Government's Department for International Development (DFID).