Has Changed Disaster
Web 2.0 Summit
16 November 2010
Now, by the term “crowdsourcing”, I mean speciﬁcally projects or environments that support collaborative knowledge creation. The crowdsourcing project Iʼd like to introduce you to is one
called OpenStreetMap. OpenStreetMap been around since 2004, and aims to collaboratively map the entire world on a Free and Open basis. You can think of it as a sort of “Wikipedia for
! ! ! !
The way that OSM contributors usually participate works something like this: First, an OSM editor goes out in the world, and gathers geographic information using a GPS and a notepad.
Then they take their notes and their GPS tracks, trace and annotate them, and upload them to the OpenStreetMap database. OSM currently has hundreds of thousands of registered users,
and tens of thousands of regular contributors.
Now, why would you want to do such a thing? Well, in many parts of the world, particularly outside the US, detailed geographic data isnʼt freely available. Even where data *is* available, itʼs
often out of date, incomplete, or just plain wrong. By the way, when I look at the sign on the left, my ﬁrst instinct is to read it as “No trucks allowed this way, only satellites.”
Jesse Robbins tells the story that, after Hurricane Katrina, the Red Cross were inadvertently telling evacuees to use a bridge that wasnʼt there anymore. He called them and was told “What
do you mean ʻthe bridge isnʼt there anymoreʼ, I can see it in Google Maps!”
So we can see that having accurate maps and geographic information can be a big deal in a humanitarian crisis situation. In January of 2010, as you all know, the Republic of Haiti endured
a Magnitude 7.0 earthquake just outside the capital city of Port-au-Prince. An estimated one to two hundred thousand were killed, and another three million affected.
In Port-au-Prince itself, between one-third and one-half of the buildings were damaged or destroyed, including this building, the former headquarters of the National Center for Geospatial
Information, or CNIGS. The loss of its headquarters, its senior management, and most of its technical resources meant that CNIGS was unprepared to assist the international relief effort with
the geographic information that they maintained.
The consequence was that there wasnʼt much good geographic information freely available for international humanitarian agencies to use in planning their relief efforts. Thankfully, most of
the commercial satellite imagery providers stepped up and released lots of high quality post-disaster imagery, so that aid responders could see that, for example, large informal
encampments had quickly sprung up around the collapsed Presidential Palace.
12 Jan 14 Jan
19 Jan 24 Jan
In times of gravest need, everyoneʼs heart naturally goes out to the afﬂicted, but what can most of us do beyond donating a few dollars to the Red Cross? A few members of the community
began volunteering their time to collect and organize the available satellite imagery, while hundreds more set to work tracing it and adding to the OSM database. You can see their progress
The result is nothing short of incredible. Here you can see streets, parks, buildings, clinics, waterways, swampland, IDP camps, and even a racetrack catalogued in exquisite detail. In less
than two weeks, and with no coordination beyond an IRC channel and a page on the OSM wiki, contributors added over a million objects in Haiti to the OSM database, making it, ironically,
one of the best mapped cities in OSM in the entire Western Hemisphere.
OSM quickly became the best source of freely available, highly detailed geographic data for Haiti. The Mission 4636 project, which used the Ushahidi platform to crowdsource real-time
translation and geocoding of thousands of SMS text messages from victims on the ground, relied on OSM for its base map. The US Army Southern Command later used these reports to
guide its search and rescue operations.
The OSM data got ported over to handheld GPS map formats, where it was used by search-and-rescue workers to navigate around the damaged city. This extremely blurry photo was sent
to the OpenStreetMap community by an SAR team leader from Virginia. He wrote, “I wish you could see [the team's] faces light up when I ... tell them that I'm going to give them street level
The OpenStreetMap data for Haiti found its way on to the iPhone, in the form of a special version of the GaiaGPS mapping app which they released to the iPhone store for free. While at ﬁrst
this may seem a bit fatuous, it turned out that many relief workers used their smart phones as personal nav devices, including this gentlemen from the European Commission Humanitarian
... who walked into the OCHA GIS tent at the UN Logistics Base, and said “My truck drivers are going to Grand-Goave and I want to give them OpenStreetMaps. Well, Google Maps is okay,
but really what I want is OpenStreetMap.” OSM made such an impression on the ground in Haiti as being the best source of geographic information that even a strictly non-technical aid
worker knew to ask for it by name.
Consequently, MapAction, a small NGO which serves as “cartographic ﬁrst responders”, relied on OSM for the road data to make the maps used by the UN Ofﬁce for the Coordination of
Humanitarian Affairs. The practical result was that, before long, near *all* UN agencies on the ground were using OSM. A MapAction staffer told me, quote, “Without a doubt, OpenStreetMap
has helped to save lives.”
“Without a doubt,
helped to save lives.”
Letʼs stop and consider this for a moment. With no more coordination than an IRC channel and a wiki page, a few hundred volunteers mapped an entire country almost from scratch in a
couple of weeks. As a result, for the very ﬁrst time, people sitting in the comfort of their own home, or their own ofﬁce, were able to contribute substantially to saving the lives of people in the
middle of a natural disaster from halfway across the world. This is unprecedented, and it has changed disaster relief forever.
Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team
The Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team has begun to organize to try to carry this work forward. As we speak, volunteers from HOT are currently on the teamʼs fourth mission to Haiti, to try
to build local capacity to continue the work of mapping the country, in the face of a disease epidemic. We are also seeking to organize ourselves in order to be able to respond effectively to
the next major disaster.
One important component of this response will be a still-nascent project that we call OpenAerialMap, which we hope to turn into the largest Free and Open repository of satellite imagery for
the entire world. OpenAerialMap has been little more than a good idea for years, but the value of ground imagery and the necessity for getting into the hands of volunteers in the event of
humanitarian crises has never been clearer.
Humanitarian OSM Team
Web 2.0 Summit
16 November 2010
We still have a lot of challenges ahead. Although crowdsourcing has changed disaster relief forever, we have yet to ﬁnd ways to ensure that the volunteer community stands up the next time
their skills and efforts are needed, and that their work is used effectively by relief actors. I hope you will step forward and help us. Thank you!