• Taylor Piotrowski

Mapping for Disaster Relief

At any moment, communities around the world can be struck by a life-changing disaster, whether they are prepared or not. In these moments, victims rely on emergency aid and the help of recent technological developments in disaster management systems to find them, inform first responders and to save their lives.

The catalyst for technological change (Forrest, “Technology Saves Lives In Haiti”) in humanitarian relief missions occurred eight years ago, when a 7.0 magnitude quake hit just 10 miles west of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, claiming 316,00 lives, displacing more than 1.2 million people (Cook, par.1). Following initial devastation of the earthquake and the 33 aftershocks ranging in magnitude from 4.2 to 5.9, digital developers and research organizations began searching for the most efficient and effective ways to deploy emergency responders to find and rescue millions of lives. Organizations such as InSTEDD and Ushahidi sprang into action and developed various plans to use digital technology and the mobile devices already in the hands of 80% of Haitians (Conneally, TEDxRC2) to revolutionize how responders see the country and find those most vulnerable with the use of the Open Street Maps platform. As millions of people took to their phones to tweet, text and check the news, digital developers around the world converted their online activity into digital open-source maps. These maps were then used to find Haitians who were injured, displaced or in need of aid. Organizations such as the Humanitarian Open StreetMap Team (HOT) also recruited local Haitian volunteer mappers to help put themselves on the map. Since 2010, technology and the access to information has made rescue work faster, easier and more successful, helping to save millions of lives in the most vulnerable regions of the world (“Humanitarian Open Street Team”).

Putting people and places on the map

In 2010, 600 volunteers took to the streets of Haiti and created a city map from scratch (Chavent, par.2) after the nation’s capital fell into rubble, claiming thousands of lives and leaving millions displaced and homeless. Jennifer Chan, a Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) (“Harvard Humanitarian Initiative”) faculty member coined this surge of new information flows and use of technological innovation for emergency relief as “Disaster Relief 2.0”, and since then, we have seen an exponential growth (Grosinger & Hackett, par.10) in mapping technology which is now used to assess regions before and after major environmental disasters. These maps allow humanitarian organizations to “adapt faster, respond faster, and respond more efficiently,” according to John Crowley(Powell, par.6), research coordinator for crisis dynamics for the HHI (“Harvard Humanitarian Initiative”). Disaster relief is time sensitive, so it is important to make sure that first responders have as much information as possible when they must find and save people at a moment’s notice. Initiatives such as HOT proved that the simple yet game changing act of recruiting 3,500 volunteers to map the most vulnerable places of the world, putting 7.5 million people on the map (“Humanitarian Open Street Team”), will forever change how responders reach and save those in need.

Photo Credit: Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team.

The open-source mapping system, revolutionized by HOT, is a system similar to Wikipedia; anyone can edit a map. The HOT maps are used for preparedness and planning, as well as emergency response, and are of critical importance for humanitarian workers that need to suddenly find victims and save the lives of victims in a vulnerable and previously unmapped region. Currently, three disaster stricken areas: Zambia after the Chlorella outbreak, Acari following the Peru earthquake, and the Philippines after the Mayon Volcano eruption (Deffner, “Help Support 3 Local OpenStreetMap Communities”) are in need of volunteer mapping support.

The use of volunteer-made maps, as opposed to official governmental maps, not only encourages people to get involved with technology and their community, but it also dramatically reduces the time it takes to collect, access and publish maps. More recent evidence of the success of open-source digital mapping was seen following the 7.8 earthquake that hit Ecuador in April 2016 (Wall, par.4). Following this quake, hundreds of mappers took to the streets and began mapping the area hit, providing lifesaving information.

Photo Credit: Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team.

Recently, HOT has launched new versions of nearly all of their core tools - Tasking Manager, Export Tool, OpenAerialMap- and have also begun developing new tools for field data collection ("Field mapping organizer reaches first major milestone"). If you are interested in getting involved in putting vulnerable regions on the map, then please support this initiative by donating today so that they can continue to #MaptheDifference.


Conneally, Paul. “How mobile phones power disaster relief.” TED: Ideas worth spreading, www.ted.com/talks/paul_conneally_digital_humanitarianism/transcript.

Cook, Jesselyn. “7 Years After Haiti's Earthquake, Millions Still Need Aid.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 13 Jan. 2017, www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/haiti-earthquake-anniversary_us_5875108de4b02b5f858b3f9c.

Forrest, Brady. “Technology Saves Lives In Haiti.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 11 July 2012, www.forbes.com/2010/02/01/text-messages-maps-technology-breakthroughs-haiti.html#3a3a4b671467.

Grosinger , Michael, and Chris Hackette. “The Growth of Geofence Tools within the Mapping Technology Sphere.” PdvWireless, 15 Sept. 2015, corp.pdvwireless.com/the-growth-of-geofence-tools-within-the-mapping-technology-sphere/.

“Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team.” Help Support 3 Local OpenStreetMap Communities Dealing With Disaster! | Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, www.hotosm.org/updates/2018-01-16_help_support_3_local_openstreetmap_communities_dealing_with_disaster.

“Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team.” Haiti | Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, www.hotosm.org/projects/haiti-2.

Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, www.hhi.harvard.edu/.

“Tapping the 'information fire hose'.” Harvard Gazette, 28 Mar. 2011, news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2011/03/tapping-the-information-fire-hose/

Wall, Imogen. “Could mapping tech revolutionise disaster response?” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 25 Apr. 2016, www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2016/apr/25/could-mapping-tech-revolutionise-disaster-response.

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