From: Joel Winston, SciDevNet, More from this Affiliate
Published August 12, 2013 12:48 PM

Crowd-sourced maps may help when disasters hit

A free online map of the world that is created by its users is helping developing nations become more resilient to disasters, the Open Source Convention in Portland, United States, heard last month (22-26 July).

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Inspired by the crowd-sourcing success of Wikipedia, Open Street Map (OSM) was set up in 2004, in response to the limited online map data for many parts of the world. It is thought that over a million people are now signed up and contributing to OSM's world map.

Users can trace new routes for the map, using portable GPS (Global Positioning System) devices that can upload the data to OSM. More recently, users have been doing mapping work from their homes by looking at satellite imagery of particular areas to use as a template for updating the routes in OSM from their computers.

Kate Chapman, director of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, an initiative that applies the principles of open source to humanitarian response and economic development, told the convention that her organization’s work using OSM had helped Indonesians prepare for the floods that hit Jakarta earlier this year by pinpointing the location of floods and information centers.

"The one thing you know about Jakarta, is it's full of people," she said. "The other thing it has a lot of is flooding...We brought urban village leaders together with university students, and sat down with them and asked them 'where is the important infrastructure in your village?' And we started mapping."

"What inspired the work we do today was the 2010 earthquake in Haiti," Chapman tells SciDev.Net. "The earthquake happened and the OSM community started spontaneously mapping. And soon it became the most accurate road map of the capital, Port-au-Prince."

The maps, which included the locations of displaced people, health facilities and basic infrastructure, were used by search and rescue teams, as well as the UN and World Bank.

Harry Wood, from the Open Street Map Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that supports the OSM project, says OSM is a useful tool for aid agencies during disasters, for a number of reasons.

"They can go to OSM as an easy-to-access data source, which can be updated minute by minute," he tells SciDev.Net. "It's high-level detail, capturing road networks in particular, so it gets used as a base map by these organizations. They then lay markers on top of OSM for temporary situational updates, for example if there's a relief center which has been set up, or death toll statistics for the area."

Read more at SciDev.Net.

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