When Cartography Meets Disaster Relief

Mimi Kirk at CityLab: “Almost three weeks after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, the island is in a grim state. Fewer than 15 percent of residents have power, and much of the island has no clean drinking water. Delivery of food and other necessities, especially to remote areas, has been hampered by a variety of ills, including a lack of cellular service, washed-out roads, additional rainfall, and what analysts and Puerto Ricans say is a slow and insufficient response from the U.S. government.

Another issue slowing recovery? Maps—or lack of them. While pre-Maria maps of Puerto Rico were fairly complete, their level of detail was nowhere near that of other parts of the United States. Platforms such as Google Maps are more comprehensive on the mainland than on the island, explains Juan Saldarriaga, a research scholar at the Center for Spatial Research at Columbia University. This is because companies like Google often create maps for financial reasons, selling them to advertisers or as navigation devices, so areas that have less economic activity are given less attention.

This lack of detail impedes recovery efforts: Without basic information on the location of buildings, for instance, rescue workers don’t know how many people were living in an area before the hurricane struck—and thus how much aid is needed.

Crowdsourced mapping can help. Saldarriaga recently organized a “mapathon” at Columbia, in which volunteers examined satellite imagery of Puerto Rico and added missing buildings, roads, bridges, and other landmarks in the open-source platform OpenStreetMap. While some universities and other groups are hosting similar events, anyone with an internet connection and computer can participate.

Saldarriaga and his co-organizers collaborated with Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT), a nonprofit that works to create crowdsourced maps for aid and development work. Volunteers like Saldarriaga largely drive HOT’s “crisis mapping” projects, the first of which occurred in 2010 after Haiti’s earthquake…(More)”.