Remapping Nepal After the April 2015 Earthquake

There are always many goodhearted U.S. citizens who are able to respond to overseas disasters by hopping on a plane to provide relief in the midst of post-disaster chaos. For most Americans, this just isn't a realistic possibility. While we all have skills that we could contribute, there are few easy-to-use tools that allow us to make a difference.

That's where OpenStreetMap (OSM) comes in. It's a wiki map of the world — fully editable and accessible by anyone with an internet connection. The Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) gives purpose to the tool by applying the principles of open source and open data sharing to humanitarian response. When a disaster significantly alters the geographical landscape or built environment, HOT issues a prioritized task list of map portions that need updating (called "polygons"). Why is this important? When those relief providers hit the ground, they need to be able to navigate the area safely and efficiently.

Thousands of GIS professionals around the world respond to these calls, updating OSM maps without ever leaving home.


An Endless Task List

The recent Nepalese earthquake, which was as powerful as two of the three 2011 Japanese earthquakes that caused the Fukushima nuclear disaster, caused the deadliest day in Mount Everest history and more than 8,000 deaths throughout the country. A few days after the quake, a bunch of Dewberry's GIS professionals got together during lunch to learn how to help first responders and survivors by updating OSM maps.

OSM provides two toolsets: a basic one that middle school children have used to update school districts, and a more advanced one that makes professional updates a lot easier. Our job is to take before imagery (typically provided by Bing) and after imagery (courtesy of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency) and highlight buildings or roads that were damaged or destroyed during the earthquake.

OSM has become the Red Cross' preferred map for international disaster response because of how fast it can be updated. The nearly 50 aftershocks in Nepal continue to cause widespread damage nearly a month after the initial shockwave. In these environments, plans made at midnight to transport supplies to a remote village may need to be changed by the next morning because aftershocks carved up the main route. The updates we make as HOT volunteers give relief workers the critical information they need to work in a continuously changing environment.


Giving Back Has Never Been So Simple

We've grown to love what we do, and work doesn't seem like work anymore—it's truly enjoyable. So the occasional hour or two spent on the computer at night, mapping for HOT, can make a significant difference in hundreds of lives.

HOT is just one example of how relief organizations use technology to leverage the expertise of experienced professionals. Tell us about the innovative organization you volunteer for by commenting on this blog's LinkedIn post.

  • Sue Hoegberg
    Sue Hoegberg
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