Helping Vulnerable Communities Survive Disasters
Sparked by humanitarian organizations like the American Red Cross, backed by companies like JP Morgan Chase & Co., and enhanced with data sharing from Facebook, vulnerable communities now have a better chance at surviving disasters thanks to a program called Missing Maps.

A disaster can devastate any community, but historically, the damage is considerably more widespread in the world’s poorest and most vulnerable communities. For example, on October 4, 2016, when Hurricane Matthew made landfall on the southern peninsula of Haiti, over 3,200 homes were destroyed and more than 15,000 people were displaced. In Haiti alone, over 1,000 people died because of this storm.

Many times, if a disaster occurs in a vulnerable, unmapped location, first responders lack the information necessary to make valuable decisions regarding life-saving relief efforts. Missing Maps is a collaborative project that literally puts these vulnerable communities on the map. This way, humanitarian organizations can better meet the needs of the communities and people they are trying to help.

Digital volunteers working with Missing Maps have helped map the homes of 8 million people worldwide. Data from the program has already begun to enhance disaster response efforts — examples include Typhoon Haiyan that struck the Philippines in 2013, and the Nepal earthquake, in 2015.

JP Morgan Chase and its employees are supporting Missing Maps by participating in “mapathons,” where volunteers create digital maps for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable communities. Kathy W., a Business Operations Executive at JP Morgan Chase, commented on the effectiveness of the program, stating, “The work we’re doing really helps to build more resilient communities and helps save lives.” Chase employees have held 22 official “mapathon” sessions and have helped put vulnerable communities in South Africa, Vietnam, Colombia and Peru on the map.

Recently, Facebook joined the efforts and began sharing its population density data with Missing Maps in hopes of putting 200 million more people on the map. This will help the Red Cross and other organizations on the forefront of this project to reach their mapping goals.

Earlier this year, Facebook began applying techniques from computer vision satellite imagery to generate high-resolution population maps that indicate how and where people are aggregated in communities throughout the world. Originally intended to aid in developing geographically specific communications technologies, Facebook decided to publicly share this data in hopes of helping first responders and humanitarian organizations increase efficiency with disaster planning and disaster response.

As part of its work with Missing Maps, the American Red Cross has already implemented data from Facebook, mapping more than two million people in Malawi alone. The humanitarian organization plans to continue to use this data to map vulnerable communities in other disaster-prone areas, like Haiti.

Ashley Henyan

Photo: Flickr

mapillaryIn spite of modern digital services like Google Street View, many locations in developing countries, such as Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, remain inaccessible to much of the world.

Swedish startup Mapillary and the World Bank have teamed up to solve this problem. Mapillary enables individuals to map their own streets by collecting street level photos simply by using their smartphones.

Such maps can help cities anticipate and recover from natural disasters, track traffic congestion, distribute resources to the impoverished communities that need them and build public transportation systems.

Mapillary CEO Jan Erik Solem told NPR News, “Dar es Salaam has really poor map data. The reason is that the mapping companies need people on the ground or in the local area to create the actual map.”

Maps that detail roads, homes, rivers and terrain may help kickstart city planning.

“In order for it to flourish into the metropolitan city [Dar es Salaam] has the potential to become, we began a community-based mapping project called Dar Ramani Huria (Swahili for “Dar Open Map”),” states a blog post from the World Bank, “to bring disaster prevention and response to previously unmapped areas, training the local community to create highly-accurate maps by the residents who know their city best.”

25 wards have been charted so far in Dar es Salaam with Mapillary. The task was accomplished by attaching a camera to a local Tanzanian rickshaw and by using photos taken by a motorist. These photos were then uploaded to Mapillary and constructed in 3D. A blog post by the World Bank on Mapillary’s website says that this information allows them to “pinpoint troubled areas” and to map out the routes locals often use.

As these maps are developed, they are run through software that develops natural disaster scenarios to help citizens improve planning and preventive efforts.

NPR reports that more than 260 citizens have volunteered to take photos for the mapping project. Locals have taken around 23,000 photos, which will map 300 miles of road.

“Sparking the community’s interest in mapping has the potential to truly transform Dar es Salaam into a prosperous city with the infrastructure to prevent floods, bring awareness to the need for flood prevention and risk reduction, and arm its citizens with the right tools and skills to build a better city,” states the same blog post.

Kaitlyn Arford

Sources: NPR, Mapillary, World Bank
Photo: Flickr


The OpenStreetMap Foundation is a nonprofit organization whose goal is to enable people to freely develop geospatial data. In short, it is the Wikipedia of mapping. Entirely operated on volunteer power, any individual can map an area of their choice to add and maintain data. OpenStreetMap is open data, meaning anyone can use it as long as they are credited.

In April of 2015, mappers leaped into action to help with the Nepal earthquake. Within hours, volunteers had Nepal mapped in much greater detail than ever before. Using areal imagery, GPS devices and low-tech field maps, the OpenStreetMap volunteers created a thorough and accurate map for disaster relief organizations to use.

The Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team partners with relief organizations to map the areas that need immediate aid the most. Because of these efforts, disaster relief organizations can act quickly with knowledge of how to locate people at risk and how to best deliver goods and services.

Halfway across the world, a couple of civil engineering students at the University of Washington chipped in using OpenStreetMaps to help with Nepalese disaster relief. One graduate student James Lew describes his experience saying, “There’s a tendency to want to do the major cities and the infrastructure that’s closest to the major highways, but as you get further and further out, there’s still houses out there that are dis­con­nected. It’s really cool to draw a box around them and say, ‘there’s a family here, don’t forget them.’”

Mapping has a profound role in humanitarian aid. Kathmandu Living Labs (KLL) is a small nonprofit that creates active “crisis maps” using OpenStreetMap data and real-time data submission. KLL created that allows people in the field to report in real-time what areas need the most aid. KLL then highlights the areas, showing humanitarian aid organizations where they should focus their attention.

Although the organization is small, KLL’s live crisis map has been incredibly valuable to nongovernmental organizations, the local government and even the Nepalese Army in the weeks after the earthquake. Real-time mapping has given relief workers a new edge in delivering quick and efficient help after a crisis.

– Hannah Resnick

Sources: Forbes, Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, Kathmandu Living Labs, University of Washington
Photo: Kathmandu Living Labs

While the developing world is gaining more and more Internet access, many countries are still without technology.

One African nation, Niger, is utilizing the brainpower of students to help map the country despite its supposed technological inequalities. A landlocked country in Sub-Saharan Africa, Niger maintains a population of over 17.4 million. With a GDP of under $7.5 billion last year, it is considered a low-income level country.

With the help of Hungarian Orsolya Jenei, the project–called Mapping for Niger–allows Nigerien university students to map the country using GPS equipment. The students geo-locate buildings and roads, take photographs and interview local residents about a variety of subjects specific to each area.

Niger students first mapped their university in Niamey. When the students go home or to other parts of the country, some take GPS trackers with them. The information is eventually uploaded onto a collaborative mapping program called OpenStreetMap which maps locations worldwide.

Even though the students only have one computer, four GPS trackers and have to help pay for the Internet subscription, the dedication of the students is unparalleled.

According to Jenei, digital mapping has already been implemented in other African countries. Doctors Without Borders has made use of the technology in the Democratic Republic of Congo to help locate hospitals in remote areas. Yet Jenei says digital mapping could have other uses.

While Google Maps or other similar applications provide users with adequate navigational directions, digital mapping provides a host of other useful information.

“Flooding is a big problem [in Niger], washing away many people’s homes every year,” Jenei said. “Creating maps of flooded areas would be a great way to help figure out who needs to be relocated. Mapping wells could also reveal the distances rural dwellers have to walk to get water, and help figure out how to improve their access.”

Prior to working with the Nigerien students, Jenei worked on the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team. Like the Niger project, OpenStreetMap utilizes open source and open data sharing as a means for direct humanitarian response and economic development.

– Ethan Safran

Sources: France24, World Bank.
Photo: Observers


An international team of researchers recently received a $3.5 million grant from NASA to map the world’s crops. Using satellite data, NASA is hoping to create an information system that tracks what crops are being grown around the world and whether or not they are “irrigated or rain-fed.”

The information collected from the mapping project is expected to help forecast harvests, observe the global effects of climate change on crops, and determine where food aid is needed most.

The project is being developed in anticipation of increased global food demand over the next century. The world population is expected to increase by 2 billion between now and 2050, according to the United Nations. The mapping project will help establish where crop growth is most productive, which will be critical information as water demand increases along with population growth.

By 2050, the United Nations projects that global food demand will increase by 70%. Adding to the challenge of growing food demand is an increase in food prices. The NASA mapping project will hopefully mitigate both issues by presenting scientists with the data necessary to determine which areas are most conducive to crop growth throughout the world. More successful crop yields will help cushion from spikes in food prices, allowing more people throughout the world to purchase nutritious foods.

– Jordan Kline

Source: United Nations, Arizona Daily Sun
Photo: United Nations