How Crowdsourced Cartographers Are Helping Nepal

When one thinks of disaster relief, it is invariably food, shelter, medical supplies, and healthcare professionals that come to mind. But mapmakers are — or should be — a part of successful responses, too. As The Atlantic reports:

It’s become a regular occurrence: Whenever there’s a natural catastrophe, a team of “crisis mappers” activate around the world. These volunteers use crowdsourcing tools to turn satellite data into digital maps, which are then used to make decisions on the ground.

After Typhoon Haiyan struck the city of Tacloban in the Philippines, volunteers with the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) worked to add the city’s pre-storm roads and buildings to the map. For months, the same group mapped the rural infrastructure of Guinea and other countries hit by the roiling Ebola crisis…

…They mention facts like this: The city of Kathmandu was already well mapped before the earthquake, but, in the past week, volunteers have tripled the amount of mapping data in Nepal in OpenStreetMap.

And all this matters. The maps that HOT makes “improve outcomes”, in the lingo of international relief organizations. In other words, they enable rescuers to deliver food, shelter, and supplies to areas that need them most. It is almost certain that they greatly help reduce suffering, and it is very likely that they save lives.

Maps are one of those things that are easy to take for granted, especially when the more visible worries (understandably) involve feeding and healing people. But it goes to show that effective disaster response involves a synergy of many different factors. After all, it is the maps that help responders better find who needs those resources.

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