Via The New Yorker: Creating a Map to Navigate the Post-Earthquake Landscape in Ecuador. Excerpt:
When the shaking, faint but jarring, began, Daniel Orellana, a geographer at the University of Cuenca, in southern Ecuador, was at home with his wife and daughter. It was Saturday evening, around 7 P.M. The tremors subsided, and Orellana eventually went back to a paper he was writing, then took his family to his mother’s house for her birthday.
Ecuador, which sits on the seismically volatile part of the the Pacific basin called the Ring of Fire, has a number of active volcanoes and regular small earthquakes, so, although the reverberations were worrisome, they were also familiar to Orellana. He didn’t learn until he returned home, late that evening, that an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.8 had struck the northern coast, killing hundreds, injuring thousands, and collapsing roadways, bridges, and buildings across a wide swath of the country.
Orellana was well positioned to help. As part of an international platform called OpenStreetMaps, he helped make maps of Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, of Japan in 2011, and of Nepal last year. OpenStreetMaps, which was created in 2004, has been called the Wikipedia of cartography: it is the work of a global network of an estimated two million users, who construct editable maps of places that are typically off the grid.
In more recent years, N.G.O.s like the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT), which is based in Washington, D.C., have put the open-source data to more pointed use in relief work. After the earthquake struck in Ecuador, HOT sent out an e-mail to enlist volunteers to build up-to-date maps for aid workers. Each disaster response is coördinated and managed by a small group of local organizers—in this case, by Orellana and five others across the region.
Later Saturday night and early Sunday morning, Orellana and the rest of the team canvassed an array of public and private institutions, gathering information to take, in effect, before and after photos of the affected areas. The source materials for HOT efforts range from satellite images taken by state agencies and private companies, like Bing and Google, to government lists detailing the locations of schools, hospitals, and other public-infrastructure facilities.
The local team then uploads all the information it has gathered onto a server, which can be accessed by volunteers all over the world. Each volunteer is given a grid to fill in with the data gathered from the satellite images and government legends, using each layer of information to make a composite image that more experienced mappers check for accuracy and precision. When an individual patch of the map is complete, you can see what, exactly, has been destroyed and how best to find possible survivors.
“We’re providing data sets that the first responders don’t have,” Tyler Radford, HOT’s executive director, told me. “In the areas where we’re working, there are next to no map details available. You can’t tell how many people are living in some of these villages.”
Given the significant numbers of volunteers that the project typically attracts, the work of populating these maps moves relatively quickly. In the forty-eight hours after last year’s earthquake in Nepal, an estimated two thousand volunteers managed to quadruple the amount of mapped terrain around the crisis zone.