Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Mills Students Use Cartographic Skills to Aid Typhoon Recovery Effort

Crowd Source Mapping at Mills
Fifteen Mills College students spent part of Tuesday afternoon lending a hand to the post-typhoon recovery effort in the Philippines, but they never left campus. They were not holding a food drive or collecting donations; they were making maps. 

Using a tool called "Open Street Maps" they were transferring data from aerial photographs to a mapping database that can be accessed by workers on the ground in areas devastated by the recent typhoon. By the end of the afternoon they had contributed hundreds of new features to the OpenStreetMaps database.

The "Task Manager"
OpenStreetMap is a sort of Wikipedia for geospatial information - the stuff we see on maps from roads and rivers to building footprints and utility lines. It is a software platform that makes it possible for people anywhere in the world to update the maps with data from their GPS devices or from doing field work by walking around their neighborhood and then makes it possible for anyone else in the world to access that data. 

In response to the typhoon, OpenStreetMap contributors created a wiki page that provides access to existing maps and tools and they use a tool called the "Task Manager" to identify needed mapping work. Volunteers log in and are given a task such as trace all the roads or building outlines in a village from aerial photography. They're shown a grid map that indicates what's already been done and what task is next. The software keeps track of who is working on what, which areas are ready to be checked over by other volunteers, and which areas are highest priorities.

Map Edits by Mills Student NM
The Mills students have learned how to contribute to OpenStreetMap as a part of their work in a sociology class with an unwieldy name: "Geographic Information Systems and Sociological Geography." One of the themes of the class is the use of and contribution to open source projects like OpenStreetMap. Rather than the expensive software usually used in courses like this, the Mills class makes use of Quantum GIS an open source software project built by a team of programmers from around the world.

Typhoon Haiyan, also known as Typhoon Yolanda, struck the central Philippines on November 8. Its sustained winds of up to 195 mph with gusts of 235 mph have been called the worst weather event ever recorded. At this writing the death toll is reported to be over 2,000 with the destruction from wind, floods, and ocean waves including entire towns.

The OpenStreetMap project is one of many "crowd sourced mapping" efforts. Others include Ushahidi,  Sahana, CrisisMappersGoogle.orgINSTEDD. The UN even organized an international meeting "Crowdsource Mapping for Disaster Risk Management and Emergency Response" held in Vienna in 2012. Crowd-sourced mapping is an example of "peer production" or "mass collaboration" in which software platforms permit people around the world to cooperate to produce a joint product.

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