By Joseph J. Bailey (@josephjbailey), University of Nottingham, UK.
“In the days since the earthquake in Nepal, thousands of humanitarian mappers have sprung into action to fill in gaps in the map in the affected area” (Mapbox article, dated 27th April 2015, two days after the Nepal earthquake).
The earthquake that occurred in Nepal on the 25th April 2015 is the largest quake to affect the region since 1934 and one of the most devastating natural disasters in recent memory, killing thousands of people. Aftershocks present an ongoing threat, including one on the 12th May killing over 100 people. Accessing the affected communities requires explicit and accurate knowledge of the area’s infrastructure.
The world’s population continues to grow, making natural disasters increasingly devastating. However, technology develops in parallel. Emerging technology can and is helping with disaster management. More people than ever across the world now carry in their pockets a very powerful tool; a smartphone connected to the internet and equipped with an inbuilt GPS unit. This can be used to quickly and accurately record spatial information not only on a day-to-day basis but also after a natural disaster where possible. Additionally, and often more realistically amidst the destruction where the event has occurred, people nowhere near the disaster itself can contribute towards mapping efforts using satellite information, providing an invaluable resource for those on the ground.
A recent paper in Geography Compass (Haworth and Bruce, 2015) reviewed volunteered geographic information (VGI) for disaster management (prevention, preparation, response, and recovery). VGI technologies allow for near-instant sharing of relevant geographic information for disaster management and the resource implications for generating these data are minimal. This article also assesses the associated challenges of these data, including: “lack of data quality assurance and issues surrounding data management, liability, security, and the digital divide” (p. 237), the latter referring to the lack of technology in some areas so that people can benefit from and contribute to VGI projects (this is improving every day, however). The authors stress the importance of VGI in disaster prevention as well as response, but response is the main subject of this post herein.
There are many examples of VGI, and one of the big projects where such data are used is OpenStreetMap, which I focus on here. Founded in 2004, driven by limits on access to spatial data and the dominance of proprietary software, and in response to the increase in affordable GPS and satellite navigation units, “OpenStreetMap (OSM) is a collaborative project to create a free editable map of the world” (Wikipedia). It uses data contributions from volunteers all over the world (Wiki – OSM Map Production). Such an open, editable geographic information system (GIS) based on crowdsourced data is an incredible resource. It has huge potential from making lives easier day-to-day, to saving lives in extreme circumstances like during and after a natural disaster.
In the context of the 2015 Nepal earthquake, OSM has been invaluable, providing accurate and up-to-date maps that are used by aid organisations and local disaster response teams. Indeed, according to an article on Mapbox (by Eric Fischer, 27th of April), just two days after the quake struck, “more than 2000 mappers … recorded 13,199 new miles of roads and 110,681 new buildings” (see the image below from the Mapbox article). Naturally, these figures will have increased substantially since this article as mapping efforts continue. The OSM volunteers rapidly digitised satellite images after the earthquake, providing much-needed maps and data to humanitarian organisations (OSM Nepal Earthquake Wiki). The process is coordinated by the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT), who communicate with relevant organisations to focus mapping efforts. Anyone can use the resultant maps and associated routing services for free.
The use of VGI will only grow alongside technological development and, importantly, so too will accessibility to this technology through projects such as OpenStreetMap. There are known issues of data quality and so on, as discussed by Haworth and Bruce (2015), but ultimately this technology can only be a good thing. Hopefully it will mean that populations at risk of large-scale natural disasters, like those in Nepal most recently, will be able to be helped more quickly and effectively, thus mitigating the impact.
Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Wiki available at: http://wiki.openstreetmap.org/wiki/2015_Nepal_earthquake (last accessed 17th May)
Mapbox article and animation image available at: https://www.mapbox.com/blog/nepal-earthquake-animation/ (dated 27th April 2015, last accessed 17th May)