​Crowd-sourced maps assist in Hurricane Maria relief efforts: How volunteers are helping put Puerto Rico on the map

As Hurricane Maria‘s winds and rain battered our home in San Juan, among the many thoughts that bounced in my head in those long hours was wondering about the people living in the mountainous regions of the island. The winding roads, heavy foliage, cliffs, bridges and terrain susceptible to landslides could make it the worst place to be in such a storm. Many small communities on those mountains would become isolated for days.

The storm left us without power, water and cellphone service. In the following days, I managed to connect to one of the few hotspots available and got an email indicating that The Humanitarian Open Streets Maps team was responding to the disaster per the request of the Red Cross. As a local OpenStreetsMap user, I new what that meant. Yet never imagined how it would take shape and how vital that information would become to the relief efforts.

OpenStreetMaps, or OSM as the name implies, is an open and publicly available geographical database which anybody can use and edit. Think of it as the Wikipedia for maps. Governments, Non-governmental organizations and companies such as AppleFoursquare and Yahoo use OSM. You may have seen OSM data in a map on your phone without even knowing it.
For some time I have tinkered as a contributor to OSM in my spare time. A small local group of volunteers have been able in getting some local government municipalities to contribute data to OSM. Most of it may be out of date so OSM volunteers review and even sometimes perform field work to ensure accuracy and quality. Local organizations such as Foundation for Puerto Rico have sponsored mapping activities to under-served communities. Initiatives like these have led to good PR road information in OSM. While larger cities may have good building descriptions, rural areas especially the mountain regions in Puerto Rico may have very little geographical information available.

When a major disaster strikes and a large scale response effort needs to be executed knowing where those building structures are located is essential. That’s when the Humanitarian OSM team can quickly turn the focus of mapping volunteers to analyse satellite imagery on a location in need. To my surprise, universities stateside sprang into action organizing Map-A-Thons for Puerto Rico. In these map-a-thons events, experienced OSM users recruit newbies and teach them the basics to put them to work in outlining buildings and drawing roads over satellite imagery. I even encouraged my brother who lives in NYC to attend one of the events. An avalanche of data ensued and its importance cannot be underestimated. When someone’s home is outlined on a map, it means something. It means that it exists, it is there and that a someone may live there.

I visited the Red Cross Operations Center in San Juan and witnessed something truly amazing. A flurry of activity with volunteers from around the world gathering to help our island. I had chance to talk with a Red Cross worker working the maps data and the folks responsible for prioritizing the relief efforts. In such a situation, it only beckons a human being to ask “How can I help?”, which I did. I was told the Red Cross was printing large format maps elsewhere and they needed that capability there. I quickly contacted some friends which where able to get them a large format printer to the ops center. As best as I could contacted the local OSM volunteers and GIS professionals, which could aide the Red Cross.

Red Cross volunteers in San Juan, PR hold up a map of Puerto Rico
Red Cross volunteers in San Juan, PR hold up a map of Puerto Rico

The Red Cross is providing disaster relief right now, as well as employing highly capable geographical information systems (GIS) tools with volunteers on the field to catalog which roads are accessible or obstructed. That obstruction could be a landslide, fallen trees or a collapsed bridge. The information is shared with FEMA and local agencies which in instances in coordination with the military determine the course of action for rendering aid.

VIDEO: Rutgers ‘map-a-thon’ aids relief efforts in Puerto Rico

Disaster relief volunteers from various organizations are being sent to every corner of the island, including hospitals, shelters, and elderly homes. Volunteers coming from afar, not familiar with Puerto Rico may need map data to navigate a post hurricane disaster zone where street signage may have been blown by the fierce winds.

So one can imagine a repeating story playing out in Puerto Rico. That of an elderly person living in the mountainous region of the island, who may be alone, without power, enduring sweltering heat, with no clean water and in need. Yet thanks to a someone in another part of the world who drew a simple outline of his house, a relief worker knows that there is a home there, how to get there and a knock on the door can happen.

You can help Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands in various ways. Participating in a Mapathon, or donating to the Red Cross are some.

If you have a computer, an internet connection and some time you can assist in mapping Puerto Rico.


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