Humanitarian open source mapping can make a big difference in emergencies, since detailed maps can help to deliver aid where needed. Helping mapping the world is possible for everybody. All you need is a laptop, internet connection and just a bit of a geek attitude.
It’s Saturday 10 a.m. and 20 motivated volunteers are gathered together at the Finnish Red Cross headquarters. The word of the day is humanitarian mapping and the task is to map the risk zones of the meningitis epidemic outbreak in Togo, West Africa. The Mapathon is about to begin!
Working side by side, beginners and the professionals of Geographical Information System have at least one thing in common: they are enthusiastic about mapping the world.
They are not the only ones. Currently there are 25,000 people around the world that are regularly contributing to OpenStreetMap, a project creating a free editable map of the world. Totally 2,5 million OpenStreetMap members are registered around the world. Volunteers use the satellite pictures to trace buildings, residential areas and roads and put them on the virtual map.
Strong humanitarian cause
Many volunteer mappers contributing to the OpenStreetMap are driven by a strong humanitarian cause. Also the organizer of the Mapathon, the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Finland, HOT-OSM, aims specifically to generate map resources which help save lives of people who are affected by a disaster or spreading epidemic.
The Finnish Red Cross Operations Coordinator Eero Sario confirms that detailed, high-quality maps are of a great value to humanitarian search and rescue teams which operate in poorly mapped areas.
“We need people to do this, not machines. Only people can see and identify from the satellite picture when for example a building was damaged by a natural disaster.”
– It is difficult for humanitarians to operate if they don’t know where the residential areas are and which roads lead there, Sario says.
Thanks to OpenStreetMap community, after the earthquake in Nepal about a year ago, the map of disaster areas grew very fast. This allowed for a rapid deployment of humanitarian workers into the most affected areas.
– I see a big opportunity for future volunteering. We need people to do this, not machines. Only people can see and identify from the satellite picture when for example a building was damaged by a natural disaster, Sario explains.
“It is basically a form of crowdsourcing and empowers citizens to help each other in our globalizing world.”
The locals know best
Mapping the world equally even in the most remote areas is important for many reasons, and not only for the case of emergencies.
– If one of us forgets to mark an isolated residential area, the children living there might not receive a vaccination, Pekka Sarkola, GIS professional and emergency volunteer, points out while mapping the meningitis area in Togo.
As the local people normally have the most accurate knowledge of locations, it is important to involve them to generate the maps. Therefore participatory mapping can be also done.
– Locals can draw the roads and mark every house in a simple field paper. The papers are then processed by a professional who digitizes the data, Sario describes.
This was done in Kibera, the largest slum in Kenya. In the project of Map Kibera Trust organisation, the inhabitants of the Kibera were taught how to mark their homes, churches or shops but also areas which should be avoided. The map became so detailed that now it even marks the location with access to water such as toilets and taps.
Sometimes being on the map means also right to exist, as Sario shows:
– As the Kibera slum did not exist on the map in the beginning, so the people living there did not exist for the government. The slum was largely underestimated in terms of population. Now they can start to influence the policy makers and advocate for better rights and infrastructure.
Become a humanitarian mapper:
You don’t need to have any previous experience or skills with mapping. You can learn to do the mapping effectively in less than hour. Then you can easily continue at home.
Follow the HOT-OSM Finland for more information about next Humanitarian OpenStreetMap workshops and meetings.
Text: Jana Sassakova