Digital drive aids Philippines relief

Online mapping emerges as key tool for the UN and Red Cross in getting aid to areas devastated by Typhoon Haiyan.

Crowdsourcing from Twitter with tweets with tags like 'infrastructure damage' has helped agencies identify what resources are needed in which areas [AFP]

Hundreds of online map-makers around the world have pooled their talents to help relief agencies make critical decisions in the Typhoon Haiyan-stricken Philippines.

Thousands of social media images have been tagged, while citizen map-makers – dubbed “digital humanitarians” – have traced roads and rated typhoon damage for the UN and aid agencies.

Online mapping has become a key tool in Philippines relief efforts and disaster response drives around the world, with US space agency NASA issuing satellite maps showing typhoon damage in the Asia-Pacific region.

Volunteers shared more than 7,000 images on the MicroMappers Image Clicker, which were collated by the online crowdsourcing organisation the Standby Volunteer Task Force, the global humanitarian relief group GISCorps and the mapping technology organisation ESRI into online maps.

The UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) field teams and other humanitarian organisations on the ground have since used the maps to target key relief areas, according to Russ Johnson, Esri global director for public safety and emergency response.

“With a live map, they can examine what the current needs are,” Johnson told Al Jazeera.

He said crowdsourcing from Twitter with tweets such as “infrastructure damage”, “blankets needed” or “medical needs”, combined with geotagging, and geographic information system (GIS) analysis, enabled agencies to identify what resources were needed in which areas.

“I don’t know how you’d do that without a map,” Johnson told Al Jazeera.

“We’re getting tremendous hits (in Philippines map traffic), our maps are being integrated with a number of organisations in websites.”

The Red Cross is co-ordinating its use and the volunteer effort around online mapping for the first time, in order to prioritise what areas of the Philippines to target first.

Robert Banick, GIS co-ordinator for the American Red Cross, said the organisation was piloting the use of geographic information systems to improve long-term international programming. 

“Embracing digital mapping also creates unique opportunities to crowdsource tedious but important mapping tasks through OpenStreetMap(OSM), the openly editable Wikipedia of maps,” Banick said of the website.

Online mapping evolution

The Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT), a US-based non-profit organisation launched in 2009,  acts as a bridge between the traditional humanitarian responders and the OpenStreetMap Community and has played a key role in the latest disaster response efforts.

Kate Chapman, the executive director of HOT, said the group was working with the Digital Humanitarian Network, a consortium of volunteer and technical communities on supporting the active OpenStreetMap Philippines community.

“In the Philippines, what we’ve done is we’ve reached out to agencies with map information,” Chapman told Al Jazeera.

Since the operation began two days before the typhoon struck Philippines land, HOT has merged 1,240 place names from GNS data, mapped 29,845 buildings and traced 3,036 residential land-use areas as of Saturday, November 16.

They have been working with the UN OCHA and the American Red Cross and offering support during relief operations.

“We’ve been working with the American Red Cross for quite some time,” Chapman said.

Now we can put the data in the hands of people on the ground so they can save lives.

by Russ Johnson, Esri global director for public safety and emergency response

The Red Cross explored the notion of geospatial information in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, when organisations like HOT were already mapping online.

Banick said the American Red Cross had used mapping and GIS technology domestically to support its headquarters operations, chapters and partners since the early 1990s.

Through a web-based platform, interactive maps created at headquarters are shared with local chapters who can then download the maps, turn layers of data on/off, and add additional data to tailor maps to their own needs. 

“The American Red Cross has been utilising mobile data collection domestically in medium-scale disasters since 2007,” Banick said.

“Equipping and training field staff and volunteers to use GPS-enabled devices with pre-loaded damage assessment survey questions has enabled the production of digital maps that display survey results and photos of damaged areas.

“These maps can be updated in real-time as assessments are ongoing.” 

Basic maps, such as dirt and/or stick maps are a core component of the Vulnerability and Capacity Assessment (VCA) process used by Red Cross and Red Crescent societies globally.

Banick said these were excellent tools to help communities organise information and discuss their vulnerabilities, but were not easily preserved or communicated outwardly.

Esri has assisted the US Homeland Security department responder, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, for several years, particularly in regards to monitoring wildfires with infared sensors and hotspot data on online maps.

Johnson said online mapping had come a long way since its infancy in the late 1990s, when he left his job as a California fire chief to take up his post at Esri.

Both Johnson and Chapman cite improvements in technology such as GIS data for the emergence of online mapping as a key emergency response tool.

Chapman also credits OSM with the progress made by citizen mappers.

“Now we can put the data in the hands of people on the ground so they can save lives,” the former fire chief said.

Source: Al Jazeera