Open-source mapping becomes tool for humanitarian efforts

Jessica Shu

UT Libraries is helping out in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico by using the power of crowdsourcing to update online maps.

Open-source, or free and collaborative, maps are an increasingly valuable tool for humanitarian efforts in disadvantaged regions hit by a natural disaster, where privately-owned maps, like Google Maps, are infrequently updated.

“In the case of natural disasters and other humanitarian crises, aid organizations on the ground identify geographical data that they need to make risk assessments,” said Hannah Alpert-Abrams, postdoctoral fellow for Data Curation in Latin American Studies at UT-Austin. “Organizations like OpenStreetMaps create public projects based on those needs.”

In October, UT Libraries and LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections hosted a “mapathon” at the PCL. Student volunteers across disciplines used OpenStreetMap’s in-browser open-source mapping program to help with disaster relief efforts in Puerto Rico.

“Using open-source tools, people around the world can pitch in,” said Katherine Strickland, UT-Austin Libraries maps coordinator. “In rural or underfunded areas, crowdsourced expertise is really important.”

OpenStreetMap is free and volunteers can get started as soon as they make an account.

“It takes ten or 15 minutes to get oriented, but then you can do it from home,” Alpert-Abrams said. “Even my dad joined us.”

Volunteers traced and labeled important features of current satellite images.

“You’re basically fleshing out satellite data, marking bridges and buildings and roads,” Strickland said. “Then the relief organizations in the area actually have coordinates to go off of.”

Strickland says OpenStreetMaps is her go-to mapping resource. She appreciates the democratic nature of OpenStreetMaps, which, unlike Google Maps, has no usage restrictions.

“The quality control comes from the size of the community,” Strickland added. “Any change gets checked by several other people.”

Though the “mapathon” was in October, it is never too late to participate in open-source mapping as an individual, Alpert-Abrams said. She added that Puerto Rico still needs continued support.

“According to PBS this week, only 66 percent of power has been restored on the island since Hurricane Maria, a majority of schools are still without electricity and the island remains on a boil advisory,” Alpert-Abrams said.

UT Libraries is planning more events for after winter break.

“A couple of student groups are interested in open-source mapping,” Strickland said. “We’re trying to organize a few mapathons next semester. If we build a mapping community here, we’ll be able to respond quickly if and when there’s another crisis.”