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How User-Generated Crisis Maps Save Lives in Disasters

Jing Guo's picture

YouTube, Wikipedia, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, blogs… This list could easily go on and on for paragraphs. Today, we are so immersed in social media that we can hardly go a day without reading or watching user-generated online content. Videos like “Charlie Bit My Finger” make us laugh. Free lessons on Khan Academy, which were originally started by a hedge fund analyst at home, help us learn.

But user-generated online content is not all about entertainment and free classes. Crisis maps on crowd-sourcing platforms like OpenStreetMap and Ushahidi have demonstrated a less expected yet significant capacity of user-led content creation online:  it saves lives in disasters.

OpenStreetMap: Mapping Disaster-Hit Areas
 
Not long ago, Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, leaving thousands dead and millions displaced. Flimsy shacks and jerry-built houses in the poorest areas along the coast offered little to no resistance to the storm. Some towns were flattened.

In a catastrophic situation of this severity, prompt aid coordination and distribution are crucial. Emergency officials must immediately know which areas are most affected and how to reach them.

To help answer these questions, more than 1,600 online volunteers gathered on OpenStreetMap, a free wiki world map, to generate detailed post-disaster maps of typhoon-affected areas. Many of the contributors were just regular web users with no professional mapmaking training. Despite this lack of professional experience, these contributors teamed up virtually to take on small, manageable tasks, such as using new satellite imagery to trace buildings, infrastructure, and natural features. In total they made nearly 5 millions map changes.

OpenStreetMap had a significant impact on crisis management. The updated maps of the island nation assisted the Red Cross in making quick decisions about where and how to send food and water to survivors on the ground.
 
Ushahidi: Mapping Survivors and Needs
 
Ushahidi (“witness” or “testimony” in Swahili) is another crowd-sourced platform that has been used extensively to guide disaster-relief operations. Ushahidi collects first-hand information from survivors and witnesses through text messages, videos, phone calls, and pictures, which is then transferred to a live crisis map in real time.

The value of Ushahidi is perhaps best illustrated through recent examples. During the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, survivors on the ground submitted a vast amount of text messages and tweets. Some said: "There are people trapped in a building located on West and Paul," and others tweeted “Please RT Near Napley Hotel, people trapped!”

Students at Tufts University, and many other nameless online contributors, documented these specific and actionable reports on a live map, indicating exactly where victims were buried.

Besides helping disaster-relief operations in Haiti, a dedicated Ushahidi site was established within two hours of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. This site (sinsai.info/ushahidi) collected witness reports and sorted them by region and category.

Although crisis mapping on Ushahidi and OpenStreetMap has proven to be powerful, it also has several important limitations, including:

  •  Lack of access to mobile devices. Not everyone in need is able to make a mark on the map. Those who don’t have access to a mobile device to tweet or text—women, children, and the elderly—are usually most at risk in a disaster. When collecting information through phones and the Internet, these vulnerable groups can often fall through the cracks. Therefore, it’s crucial to ensure an equitable distribution of aid with this limitation in mind.
  • Ability and capacity to process large amounts of information. A major challenge facing crisis mapping is how to quickly process vast quantities of information in an emergency situation. For instance, during the 2011 Japanese earthquake and its aftermath, Ushahidi processed more than 300,000 tweets every minute. Documenting countless incidents while ensuring accuracy is no easy task. (Micromapper might be a solution. Read more on Forbes.)
Notwithstanding the challenges, user-led crisis mapping built a “digital infrastructure” for emergency-relief operations. In the meantime, it created a network of “digital humanitarians” by transforming passive crisis observers into active, responsible participants who played a central role in guiding aid distribution.

If you explore these mapping tools, you might be surprised by how they can be applied beyond natural disaster situations. For example, Ushahidi was initially developed to map violence in Kenya after the post-election fallout in 2008 and has been used to monitor elections and even fight corruption. Some experts argue that through open participation and citizen empowerment, mapping tools can help increase the accountability and performance of governments.   
 

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