For relief workers in Nepal after the massive earthquake on April 25, one of the challenges is just knowing where to go: Most roads and buildings don't exist on a map. But that's a situation that's changing, hour by hour, as thousands of volunteers around the world build a detailed digital atlas of the earthquake zone as part of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT).
Volunteers use aerial images from satellites to mark open spaces where helicopters or planes might land with supplies, highlight streets between towns and villages, and outline buildings that aid groups can use to guess where victims might be. Using OpenStreetMap technology—known as the "Wikipedia of maps"—they build continuously updated maps that can be used online or downloaded into navigation devices.
Just two hours after the earthquake hit, the organization's coordinators in the U.S. were getting emails from a partner group in Nepal, Kathmandu Living Lab. "They laid out districts and villages that needed mapping because they were getting all of these reports of awful damage and casualties," says Blake Girardot, activation coordinator of HOT and vice president of the organization's board.
Thanks to some foresight, the group had already worked on maps of most of the capital city. "Half of our mission is response to crises like this, so when something awful happens we can jump on it and start giving them data they need," says Girardot. "But the other half of the equation is preparing for these disasters. It's not a mystery where vulnerable places are. In places with earthquakes, floods, drought, or political conflict, we can start identifying those places ahead of time and start doing mapping before the crisis happens."
Since Nepal was identified as a vulnerable location by the World Bank and other organizations, HOT began mapping Nepal a few years ago, and helped set up Kathmandu Living Lab to work on the project locally. The group is working quickly to map out the remaining areas of the disaster zone.
"Seventy two hours after this happened, thousands of people who are amateurs at this or brand new to it have mapped something like
30,000 100,000 buildings," says Girardot.
The group is looking for more volunteers. It's possible to learn what to do—and start helping—in less than an hour. "If you can use a computer and mouse, after 45 minutes, you can really be contributing data that's literally saving lives," he says.
Thanks to the number of people contributing, even an hour or two of work can make a difference. After new volunteers mark out data points, more experienced volunteers go in and add more details, like whether a road is paved or unpaved. Later, volunteers on the ground will make the final corrections on each map.
"That initial data is super useful—it's 80% of what we need," Girardot says. "Then we'll spend the next weeks refining it back to very high-quality data."
As volunteers work, they start to feel a connection with the people on the ground. "You start to realize what's important—they're asking you to map wells because there's only water in every couple of villages, or you're mapping pharmacies because people need malaria meds. You feel like you've spent time in these places after spending hours digitizing aerial imagery. You end up with a connection with people you didn't know anything about."
The network of volunteers is always growing. "It's not for everyone—truth be told, it can get boring, since you're just drawing squares for as long as you can do it until you want to quit," Girardot says. "For some people, it really clicks and they keep doing it and learn more—that's what happened to me. Five minutes in, I loved it. It's not one of these things where I'm volunteering and I don't know if it helps or maybe it just makes me feel better. Organizations like the Red Cross are asking us and begging us for more."
"Any mapping that people can contribute helps," he adds. "It matters. It's surprising that it matters so much, but it matters. People can feel good about half an hour of mapping, or 10 minutes. Every click turns into a data point. You do 20 clicks, that's three buildings that nobody knew about, nobody had access to until you put it in there. Now suddenly those things are on the map."
Learn to map here.