Even before hundreds of rescue workers arrived in Ecuador to help in the aftermath of the massive earthquake on April 16, other volunteers headed to their laptops and started mapping the damage from thousands of miles away.
By tagging damaged buildings, rubble blocking roads, and broader areas of "massive destruction," anyone with a computer can help rescue workers respond more quickly on the ground.
It's a simple way to help. "You're shown example images of what damage from an earthquake looks like—typically, there's rubble around the building from shaking back and forth," says Caitlyn Milton, program manager of Tomnod, a crowdsourcing project run by DigitalGlobe, a satellite imagery company. "Then you are able to search the imagery pixel by pixel and then place a tag over every damaged building or impassable road."
Hours after the earthquake struck that Saturday, DigitalGlobe had redirected its satellites to start capturing images of the damage. By Sunday, it had its first image, and by Monday, it had released before-and-after shots for the crowd to compare.
The company also shares images with the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT), which crowdsources the locations of buildings and routes that rescuers can take to reach victims. In 2015, they worked together to gather data for rescue workers in Nepal.
Almost exactly a year later, they're using what they learned in Nepal in both Ecuador and Japan. "Now we're working with the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team to get us priority areas as quickly as possible, so we can redirect the satellites to capture those areas," says Milton. The team is also working to make sure everyone on the ground—from the Red Cross to local partners—has access to the data coming from the crowd in time to help.
Right now, rescuers are still hoping to find some of the many missing people, and emergency crews are also trying to help thousands of injured and suddenly homeless people. But even after the immediate disaster is addressed, the crowdsourced maps can still help.
"It's really used a lot in the emergency phase, but even more in the recovery and rebuilding phase, to identify how much money do they need to be asking from donors—so they can make evidence-based recommendations in terms of funding to support some of the rebuilding," says Rhiannan Price, senior manager of DigitalGlobe’s Seeing a Better World program. The images can also later help communities plan for resilience, so future disasters aren't as devastating.
Since DigitalGlobe released the images on Monday, more than 2,000 volunteers have tagged maps with hundreds of blocked roads and damaged buildings and neighborhoods. But over the coming weeks, the company will keep releasing new images of the hardest-hit areas, and they need more help, from anyone with a mouse and a few minutes to spare.
"The more people we have contributing to this campaign, the quicker it is that we can turn around and we can keep publishing those updated results," says Milton. In Nepal, organizations came back for updated maps each day to plan their strategic response.
"We're expecting the same this time around in Ecuador," she says. "So getting those updated stats up as quickly as possible is critical."
This blog post will be continually updated with the latest images to download.