Making Maps Work When Disaster Strikes

GeoCommons, OpenStreetMap, and Mapufacture are three online hubs where people can collaboratively map areas, which could help in emergencies

Jesse Robbins had to get across U.S. Route 90 quickly. Hurricane Katrina had wreaked havoc on the Gulf Coast, and Robbins, who is an emergency medical technician, was on a mission for World Shelters, which provides temporary, secure shelters for emergency supplies. Robbins had been guided across the highway by American Red Cross workers using Google (GOOG) mapping tools in areas where street signs were washed away.

But Robbins quickly hit a dead end. The passage had been washed away by the storm; his route was based on dated images, rather than a live satellite feed. "Frequently, you'd be working with them and they'd give you directions over closed streets or places that didn't exist any longer," says Robbins, who also is co-chairman of O'Reilly Media's Velocity conference on Web performance and operations.

Such are the pitfalls regularly encountered by emergency responders when disasters strike. They also explain what drives the companies hard at work developing mapping tools designed to help people find their way around in the aftermath of floods, earthquakes, and other cataclysms.

Collaborative Mapping, for example, runs a Web site where users can explore a huge atlas of maps with various data and add their own information. "The advent of user-contributed data allows nontechnical people to publish their own maps," says Sean Gorman, CEO and founder of FortiusOne, which runs GeoCommons. In the wake of devastating flooding in the Midwest in May, people created their own maps of everything from bridge closures to outlines of flood zones to Home Depot (HD) locations where people could get supplies. The maps in turn were made available to anyone.

OpenStreetMap is a freely available map that lets anyone with knowledge of a place contribute to the map from anywhere. Mikel Maron saw the potential for using collaborative mapping in the event of disasters and has taken the idea to the group in the U.N. Joint Logistics Center (UNJLC) responsible for making maps for first responders in a disaster. The U.N. is starting to test the idea, according to Maron, co-founder of Mapufacture, a Web service that lets people build their own maps and data sets.

Art vs. Practice

Other mapping tools place limits on who can make updates. "We may not want to rely on the crowd for data in an emergency, so there are tweaks to the model possible," Maron said during a presentation about disaster tech at a conference in Burlingame, Calif., in May. "A smaller crowd of people who have some measure of responsibility in a situation should be able to pass along information." After Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar, the UNJLC used maps that collected information about the extent of flooding and the state of critical transportation and health infrastructure. The center asked the community to e-mail information about the state of roads, bridges, ports, and waterways, and then used that information to update the map, Maron explained.

His work in Louisiana after Katrina showed Robbins firsthand that some tools don't work nearly as well on the ground as they do in a lab. "One of the interesting things with being a pretty senior technology person operating in a disaster is that you get to see the state of the art [vs.] the state of the practice," he says. He's hoping that with each disaster, he sees less of a difference between the two.

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