Online mapping technologies are at the forefront of an innovative worldwide collaborative effort to assist the relief effort currently underway in the Philippines. Last week we covered MicroMappers and Google Person-Finder; online mapping technologies infused with social media and how these pioneering efforts are fundamentally changing disaster response activities. The Red Cross is now employing a trailblazing relief effort. Once again, it involves online mapping.
OpenStreetMap (sometimes referred to as the Wikipedia of maps) is striving toward the goal of an open map of the world, in which anyone can view and make edits anytime. The Red Cross is utilizing the efforts of hundreds of volunteers from all over the world, as these volunteers have made hundreds of thousands of additions to a free online map of different areas in and around the Philippines. These additions will help save lives as the information gleaned from this collaborative mapping effort will aid the Red Cross in making critical decisions, particularly the dispensation of supplies – what to send, where to send it, and how to get it there.
OpenSteetMap (OSM) has been used during disaster relief efforts in the past, but never before had the technology directly coordinated efforts with the Red Cross. According to Dale Kunce, senior geospatial engineer at the American Red Cross, as reported by Robinson Meyer from The Atlantic, “the Red Cross, internationally, recently began to use open source software and data in all of its projects. Free software reduces or eliminates project ‘leave behind’ costs, or the amount of money required to keep something running after the Red Cross leaves. Any software or data compiled by the Red Cross are now released under an open-source or share-alike license.” The volunteers utilize satellite data to trace roads and buildings into OSM. Volunteers have already traced well over 30,000 buildings.
Mapping in the cloud to managing relief on the ground
One way in which this shared information translates into help on the ground is through map distribution (with OSM data) to workers in the field. Once new data becomes available, based on reports from the ground and in conjunction with updated maps from the digital volunteers, rescuers have a better sense of where ‘ghost’ buildings should be standing. The paper maps themselves can also be modified by rescue workers in the field and on-the-go by simply writing, drawing, and adhering ‘tacks’ to key areas of interest.
Help coming from other sources?
The Red Cross and OSM benefit greatly from up-to-date (post Typhoon) maps of the afflicted areas. The US Department of Defense operated National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) maintains satellite images of the Philippines. The areas that received the worst damage have been identified, and their coordinates have been sent to the Red Cross – though they have yet to receive the actual imagery, which would be extremely valuable to rescue workers on the ground.
Meyer’s report from The Atlantic further illustrates the need for the post-storm satellite imagery. “The goal of the Red Cross geospatial team,” said Kunce, is to help workers “make decisions based on evidence, not intuition.” The team “puts as much data in the hands of responders as possible.” What does that mean? Thanks to volunteers, the Red Cross knows where roads and buildings should be. But until it gets the second set of data, describing the land after the storm, it doesn’t know where roads and buildings actually are. Until it gets the new data, its volunteers can’t decide which of, say, three roads to use to send food and water to an isolated village. Currently the US State Department is negotiating with the NGA for the release of the imagery. Once it is obtained, the OSM volunteers can start to compare the pre and post storm images to determine the fate of the 30,000 plus structures mapped in the devastated city of Tacloban.
Program Manager – Aerials and Historical Mapping