Published on Digital Development

Using ICTs to Map the Future of Humanitarian Aid (part 1)

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Haiti map after the 2010 earthquake. Over 450 OpenStreetMap volunteers from an estimated 29 countries digitized roads, landmarks and buildings to assist with disaster response and reconstruction. OpenStreetMap/ITO World

The word “disruption” is frequently used to describe technology’s impact on every facet of human existence, including how people travel, learn, and even speak.

Now a growing cadre of digital humanitarians and technology enthusiasts are applying this disruption to the way humanitarian aid and disaster response are administered and monitored.

Humanitarian, or crisis, mapping refers to the real-time gathering and analysis of data during a crisis. Mapping projects allows people directly affected by humanitarian crises or physically located on the other side of the world to contribute information utilizing ICTs as diverse as mobile and web-based applications, aggregated data from social media, aerial and satellite imagery, and geospatial platforms such as geographic information systems (GIS).

Enter the Mappers

When a crisis strikes, it can be difficult for aid teams to coordinate their response if the affected area has been insufficiently mapped.

Enter the humanitarian mappers – thousands of mostly unpaid volunteers that provide vital information to aid agencies and responders by: monitoring social media in the affected area to see how or where the crisis is spreading; keeping tabs on news reports to gauge any impact on communication networks; and downloading satellite imagery of poorly mapped regions to ensure critical infrastructure – such as hospitals, roads and communications networks – have been properly identified.

Utilizing maps and satellite imagery from Google, the U.S. Department of State’s Humanitarian Information Unit and other providers, mapping can be of a single hazard or several hazard maps  can be combined in a single map to provide a composite picture.

One of the first major crisis mapping events was the 2010 Haiti earthquake which left hundreds of thousands dead and damaged infrastructure. Hundreds of mappers tracked Tweets from affected Haitians and used satellite imagery from the World Bank to carefully trace the road network in-country. According to leading digital humanitarian Dr. Patrick Meier, this crowdsourced map became “ the most detailed roadmap of Haiti ever produced” and was done in a matter of days.

Mapping tools

A few well-known mapping tools are Ushahidi, Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT), MapAction, and the International Network of CrisisMappers. Ushahidi, out of Kenya, tracks election monitoring and citizen engagement as well as crisis mapping, and is considered a leader in the field. Over 3,500 volunteers have collectively made 12 million edits to OpenStreetMap according to its web site, while CrisisMappers engages more than 8,900 members in over 160 countries. MapAction trains volunteers on its individual mapping service and deploys them to crisis areas with the United Nations’ rapid response Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) team.

HOT was the mapping platform used in the 2010 Haitian earthquake. Tyler Radford, HOT’s Executive Director, said that the group works with a range of partners to stay on the cutting edge of the mapping field.

“We work to serve the needs of humanitarian partners active on the ground such as American Red Cross, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), and many more, “he said. “We have operations in Northern Uganda to assist in providing better information on the South Sudan [refugee] crisis, and in Turkey to support Syrian refugees.”

Although HOT, along with partners at Missing Maps, has put more than thirty million people on the world map, many places in the world are still largely invisible. And HOT plans to do something about it.

“Over the next 3 to 5 years, HOT will be working on making mapping even more widely accessible to more people than at any time in history. …We are researching things like artificial intelligence (AI) to automatically detect and extract features like buildings and roads from satellite imagery,” said Radford. “We are helping more local OpenStreetMap enthusiasts run projects that contribute to real-world challenges in their communities by providing small grants, [and we are] training… more volunteers and local governments to… map the places they live and work and fill critical data gaps.”

I took HOT’s mapping platform for a spin a few months ago. After inadvertently locking a high priority mapping project underway so that I could play around – my apologies, guys – I picked a lower priority project and attempted to highlight a few buildings and roads in Zimbabwe. The process was actually fun; it was amazing to see what I highlighted become easily identifiable sections of the map. Too nervous to save my changes, it was nonetheless easy to understand why mapping is so appealing and an increasingly important piece of the ‘digital humanitarian’ movement.


Dana Rawls

Australian National University

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