Nearly 100 online mapmakers aid Philippines relief efforts

Media Credit: Sam Hardgrove | Hatchet Photographer
Spatial analysis lab manager Richard Hinton, left, helps freshman Jacob Pavlik map cities in the Philippines destroyed by a typhoon.

Days after one of the world’s deadliest storms struck the Philippines last week, assistant geography professor Nuala Cowan began mobilizing dozens of students, faculty and alumni.

About 8,600 miles away from the ravaged cities in the Philippines, Cowan has worked with volunteers nearly every day this week to help rebuild the region by recreating maps. She said on the first day, 90 people showed up.

Using satellite data donated by Bing to trace roads and buildings, the volunteers’ work will help disaster relief crews like the Red Cross create routes to bring supplies to the country’s hardest-hit areas.

“You can’t assess damage unless you know what was there before,” she said, explaining that satellite data becomes a reference point to compare the now-destroyed landscape.

GW’s team is part of the largest volunteer mapping effort that the Red Cross has ever coordinated for a natural disaster, with more than 400 others around the world, according to the organization’s website.

Using an open-source platform that’s been described as the Wikipedia of maps, over one hundred have attended Cowan’s lunchtime mapping sessions in the geography department.

In the last week, national volunteers have mapped nearly every square mile of the coastal city of Tacloban. Once home to more than 200,000 people, the city is now in ruins.

“The open data platform is there for anybody to contribute to,” said Cowan, who has been spending evenings cleaning up and tracing maps of the Philippines from her home. “There is no waiting, there is no jumping through hoops to get the data.”

The technology, called Open Street Map, can be used during political conflicts as well as natural disasters. The Red Cross began using geospatial data to coordinate responses after the massive earthquake that rocked Haiti in 2010, after a team of online mappers etched out the entire city of Port Au Prince in one day.

As relief efforts got underway in the Philippines this week, the number of casualties continued to climb, reaching 4,600 on Thursday, according to a United Nations report.

Sixin Li, an economics major, said she heard about the mapping through her geographic information systems class.

“Since I can’t physically be there, this really is the least I can do” she said.

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