When the earthquake struck Haiti last week, aid workers and geographers alike realized that there were no good maps of the country. A group of volunteers quickly sprang into action. Open Street Maps has been putting together a real-time view of what Haiti looks like on the ground. Aid organizations and rescue teams are actively using their maps to direct and coordinate relief efforts. The World’s Clark Boyd reports.
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MARCO WERMAN: Another thing that’s slowed down the relief effort is the lack of reliable maps of Haiti. But some mapping professionals have volunteered their services. They’ve managed to pull together a good map of Haiti, post-earthquake, that’s available online to anyone who needs it. The World’s Clark Boyd reports.
CLARK BOYD: Open Street Map is a collaborative project to create a map of the world that anyone can edit. It launched in 2005, the same year that Google launched its mapping service. But unlike Google’s effort, Open Street Map or OSM as it’s called is made up entirely of volunteers and in the hours after the Haiti earthquake, those volunteers quickly sprang into action. The years of political instability and economic hardship in Haiti had left geographers without much in the way of reliable, up to date information.
ANDREW TURNER: There was no road data on the ground. No one had any maps and so in terms of being able to respond and understand where roads and infrastructure were, there just was no data.
BOYD: Andrew Turners is an OSM contributor in Arlington, Virginia.
TURNER: So Open Street Map immediately after the event started gathering together first a lot of historic maps so a lot of 1980’s, 1990 paper maps of roads and infrastructure and started using a lot of these open tools to start tracing over those historic maps. Then as the satellite providers started putting out satellite imagery, a lot of volunteers of Open Street Map made that imagery available as more layers.
BOYD: Crisis response teams and aid groups are now downloading OSM’s Haiti map onto their GPS units. There’s even a specially designed iphone app for OSM’s Haiti map. Another group using OSM’s Haiti map is Ushahidi. That’s a site that collects web, email and text message reports from Haiti. Those reports are then embedded in an interactive version of OSM’s map on Ushahidi’s website. The Red Cross, FEMA and the U.S. Coast Guard are all putting that data to good use. Patrick Meier is director of crisis mapping at Ushahidi. He cites the example of an orphanage in Jacmel that sent in a message saying they needed water.
PATRICK MEIER: This report was posted on Ushahidi and then later a local NGO responded on the report, online and said we’re taking care of it, we’ve just dispatched 20 liters of water so in many, many respects, Haiti, I think, definitely marks a turning point in humanitarian response, thanks in part to the technologies that have been able to connect people in near real time in a network fashion.
BOYD: One person who has been watching the Haiti disaster response closely is Ken Banks. Banks runs an open-source text messaging platform called Frontline SMS. The platform’s been used in many emergency situations, although it’s not currently in use in Haiti. Banks says the sure scale of destruction in Haiti makes it almost the worse case scenario for putting tech to work in relief efforts.
KEN BANKS: The entire infrastructure of the country collapsed and it was impossible to connect to anybody and really get the sense of what was going on. There was no power, the mobile networks were down so I think things that have been used to try and rectify the situation here and things that have worked, could be very useful or interesting models to study and to determine whether or not this could be used as a template for other future scenarios.
BOYD: Haiti’s future will at least include a good map. Again, Open Street Map’s Andrew Turner.
TURNER: Every piece of data in Open Street Map will be available during the recovery, continued to be updated and made available afterwards so it’s beyond just the immediate response recovery but as rebuilding over several years, this is a map data that Haiti can always be seen as complete, never has to go through having a blank map again.
BOYD: For The World, this is Clark Boyd.
WERMAN: And we’ve got a link to this post-earthquake map of Haiti at TheWorld.org.
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