June 19, 2024

Online Mapping Shows Potential to Transform Relief Efforts

In Japan after the earthquake and tsunami, crowd-sourced maps have helped give local relief workers a clearer picture of the situation on the ground as they set priorities for food, shelter and sanitation services. The Web maps are also being used to track the fighting in Libya and the needs of refugees fleeing that conflict.

But a new report says that the potential of online mapping to transform humanitarian services will not be realized without better coordination and communication between digital volunteers and veteran agencies in the relief field, like the United Nations and the Red Cross.

The report, “Disaster Relief 2.0: The Future of Information Sharing in Humanitarian Emergencies,” is a collaboration of four groups — the United Nations Foundation, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the Vodafone Foundation and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. It will be presented Monday at an international aid and development meeting in Dubai.

Humanitarian groups say that the crisis-mapping response to the earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010 was striking proof of the potential of new mapping tools, and the report is largely about lessons learned there.

“Haiti showed everyone that it is going to be crucial to adopt and use these technologies to make humanitarian work better, faster and more efficient,” said Adele Waugaman, senior director of a technology partnership between the United Nations and Vodafone foundations focused on aid and development programs.

Haiti was a rich if grim laboratory for the new mapping tools. The destruction was so extensive that government offices — the usual sources of local information — were mostly wiped out. It was often necessary to start from scratch to gather data, a situation that lent itself to a crowd-sourced approach.

Also, a group of online mapping organizations with a humanitarian focus were in existence by then. They include the humanitarian branch of OpenStreetMap, Crisis Mappers, Sahana and Ushahidi.

These nonprofit efforts built on broader changes in the field of satellite imaging and global mapping, led by large companies — notably Google and Microsoft — which bought expensive satellite photo images and mapping data and created consumer services from them. Then, OpenStreetMap became an open-source service that allowed people to view an online map and contribute information about what they saw.

“On the technology side, Google, Microsoft and OpenStreetMap have really democratized mapping,” said Nigel Snoad, strategy adviser for the communications and information services unit of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Mr. Snoad, who was in Haiti after the quake, said he was trying to put together a map of health clinics, to guide the dispatch of health care workers and suppliers, and he had 400 street addresses that might be health centers. Mr. Snoad asked student volunteers at Tufts to help “geotag” the addresses — put coordinates on a map — with assistance from Haitians living outside the country.

Nearly all 400 addresses were mapped online within 24 hours, Mr. Snoad said, while having people physically check locations might well have taken weeks.

The map service that has been set up for Libya — libyacrisismap.net — mainly tracks media reports, accounts of violence and the flow of refugees. The Japanese use online maps mainly to assist in their own recovery efforts, and less to guide international relief agencies.

The response in almost any crisis, experts say, would be improved by closer communications between digital volunteers and on-the-ground relief workers. “If you’re contributing, you want some feedback to know that what you’re doing is really useful,” said Kate Chapman, a director of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=7c4ed2b6dd7d1f40ae0aa6d0b0258ce3

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