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Digitizing Disaster: Red Cross Taps Online Mapmakers to Help the Philippines

In the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, a massive open source mapping effort is helping relief workers on the ground.

Laurence Cruz
December 02 , 2013

Millions of smartphone users carry detailed maps of much of the world in the palm of their hand. In the rare cases where these digital maps are not up to date, the consequences are generally minor—a building looks different perhaps, or a road is closed, forcing a detour.

But what happens when a natural disaster transforms a cityscape, razing entire neighborhoods and infrastructure at a stroke? How do relief workers on the ground find their way around the resulting wasteland, making decisions that could save lives—especially in areas that may have had no maps to begin with?

That was the case earlier this month when Super Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines. On Nov. 8, the tropical cyclone unleashed a storm surge that laid waste to much of Tacloban City, a poorly mapped area about 350 miles southeast of the capital, Manila. Faced with the enormous task of responding to the disaster, the American Red Cross is getting help from an unusual source—a worldwide, crowd-sourced, humanitarian mapping collaboration made possible by the Internet.

At the center of the effort is OpenStreetMap (OSM), a Wikipedia-like online map of the world that anyone can use and edit for free. More specifically, the Red Cross is working with the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team ("hot," for short)—a community of online mapmakers that uses the mapping tool for humanitarian response and economic development. Soon after Haiyan hit, this army of volunteer mappers threw themselves into the task of quickly building up-to-date digital maps in order to help relief workers on the ground in the Philippines.

"It's the first time we've done this at any kind of scale," says Dale Kunce, an enterprise geospatial architect who is leading the Red Cross's digital mapping efforts in the Philippines from Washington, D.C. "Having maps of a place is very important for people coming from international organizations. Maps provide a lot of utility, such as understanding distances and the spatial context of knowing where you are. A lot of places have never had a map."

"Before" and "After" Maps

To guide their efforts, it's helpful for relief workers to have a good "before" and "after" sense of what a place looked like. With that in mind, OpenStreetMap contributors started mapping Tacloban City the day before the typhoon struck.

As of Nov. 19—a week and a half after the typhoon made landfall—over 1,200 OpenStreetMap volunteer mappers had modified more than 3 million objects on the map, such as detailed buildings, roads and bodies of water. Much of this work involved "tracing" roads into OSM maps using more up-to-date satellite imagery and a simple editing function in the OpenStreetMap tool.

Having this kind of "before" data allows the Red Cross to know where roads and buildings should be. But without the "after" data, volunteers can't know where buildings actually are, or make informed decisions about, for example, which of two roads to use to send supplies to an isolated village.

At the time of writing this, efforts to create updated post-disaster maps using new satellite imagery were still underway. "We did receive imagery from both the Humanitarian Information Unit of the U.S. State Department and from Digital Globe, both of which were very supportive," Kunce says, referring to two of the Red Cross's many other partners.

Offline but On Task

Kunce says it's important that relief workers be as self-sufficient as possible. That means having their own food, water and maps. And since Internet connectivity is often non-existent in disaster zones, hard copies are often the way to go. As digital maps get updated, newer versions of static maps get printed out, he says.

"This is the first time we really sensed this was going to be a big need, so we scaled up," says Kunce, who runs a tiny but dedicated team in the Red Cross's International Services Department. "Teams are going out with 20-30 maps each, without the ability for us to push them updates."

Meanwhile, Red Cross partners get digital products so they can access the most up-to-date maps via tablets, handhelds and the like, Kunce says. The Red Cross is also working on other solutions, such as a dashboard that allows the organization to push updates to users, a local map server that will allow users to see maps without being connected to the Internet, and a drop box for getting maps to relief workers in the field.

Open Standards and Open Source

Kunce says the Red Cross is a relative newcomer to the digital mapping scene. Over the last three years, his department has gone from geospatial oblivion to becoming an active user, contributor and advocate of OpenStreetMap and geospatial technologies, he says.

A major turning point in this evolution was the massive 2010 earthquake in Haiti. "We had no data," he told an audience at an annual digital mapping conference last May. "The NGOs were under incredible pressure to provide information we didn't have and couldn't provide."

Since then, Kunce says his team has been working to build capacity throughout the world and develop OSM maps for use by the Red Cross. The organization has also engaged Tulane and George Washington University students to remotely map priority project sites around the world.

"We feel very strongly that the way forwards is to embrace open standards and open source software, and of course OpenStreetMap," he says, adding that OpenStreetMap serves as the foundation, base map and data store for the Red Cross. It's also really cheap and there's no vendor lock-in, he says.

Want to Get Involved?

The support team communicates via the irc://irc.oftc.net #hot IRC channel. Users can join the support team and the coordinators on the IRC for discussions or help for mapping. You can also talk with other mappers or the support team by installing mumble and connecting to the server talk.hotosm.org. More information can be found at Humanitarian OSM Team (HOT) Mailing List.

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