Published On: Fri, Oct 6th, 2017

A Mapathon to Pinpoint Areas Hardest Hit in Puerto Rico

The likelihood of being “on the map” can be crudely gauged by something that Dale Kunce, senior geospatial engineer at the American Red Cross, calls “the Starbucks test.” He said as long as someone can navigate to the nearest Starbucks on their smartphone, their location is likely accounted for in databases such as Google Maps.

“A map is foundational to a person’s being, almost,” Mr. Kunce said in a telephone interview. “If you’re on the map, if your building, street, neighborhood exists, you exist. And you have a voice.”

Alex Gil, Columbia’s digital scholarship coordinator, was another one of the organizers. Most of the volunteers at the mapathon — hosted by Columbia’s Group for Experimental Methods in the Humanities and Columbia University Libraries — were greenhorns in cartography, working in conjunction with similar sessions at five other universities across the nation.

“It was heartbreaking,” Mr. Gil said, of the destruction in Puerto Rico and of watching the lag in getting aid to the island. “That’s when I hoped the global community can help out.”

Photo

Each volunteer was given a square of territory to update, which was then checked by another participant before going live.

Credit
Caitlin Ochs for The New York Times

To create the crowdsourced maps, the groups employed the OpenStreetMap platform, which has been called the Wikipedia of mapping because of its open-source format, meaning anyone can modify or contribute to a project. Organizers collaborated with the nonprofit Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, which uses the open-sourced data tool to create maps for charitable causes. With its headquarters in Washington, the team usually works with nonprofits and government bodies requesting services for disaster relief. In Puerto Rico, that’s the American Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, both past clients.

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Mr. Kunce, who also leads the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, is currently stationed in Puerto Rico. Every night, before leaving his office, he downloads and prints out copies of crowdsourced maps for emergency medical workers.

To create them, volunteers follow a simple process: Each mapmaker is allotted a different square of territory. Mappers then look at satellite imagery and outline key geographic landmarks. For Columbia’s project, the focus was buildings, but other mapathons have scribbled in roads, coastlines, bridges and more. Once another user verifies the work, the completed map layer goes live, available to anyone with internet access.

Adeola Awe, a Bronx resident and a master’s student in geographic information science at Lehman College of The City University of New York, arrived at the mapathon in Manhattan hoping to use his skills in urban planning to help with relief efforts. After being disappointed by the scale of federal assistance, especially compared to Houston and Miami’s post-hurricane responses, Mr. Awe decided to take a break from the sophisticated mapping software that he has used to try a simpler, open-sourced model of OpenStreetMap.

Mr. Awe, an immigrant from Nigeria, knows firsthand how insufficient maps can slow down response efforts after heavy flooding.

“We didn’t have these kinds of mapping efforts in my country, so investing my efforts in Puerto Rico today is kind of like helping them, too,” Mr. Awe said.

Since the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team was founded in 2010, its volunteers have charted previously unmapped villages in countries from Malawi to North Korea, placing an uncounted 45 million people on a map, said Rebecca Firth, the community partnerships manager. As of Friday, 1,200 OpenStreetMap users have contributed to mapping Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria, outlining 205,000 buildings and 7,200 kilometers of road.

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“Traditionally people viewed mapping as very expensive and professional,” Ms. Firth said. “We’ve proven a bunch of volunteers with a small amount of training can create something that is nearly as good as something you pay millions for.”

At the Columbia event, Latin music thrummed in the background, as friends conversed with each other in Spanish, and a group of volunteers held a prolonged discussion with one of the facilitators about the deeper intricacies of mapmaking.

Mr. Saldarriaga, a native of Colombia, credits part of the rising popularity of open-sourced mapping to the intrinsic joy of building something. Mapping Puerto Rico was special to him, he said.

“We speak the same language, and so it’s sad to hear that people close to you are suffering that much,” he said. “But when you’re just tracing buildings and mapping roads, achieving a great amount in a couple of hours, it’s a little bit like therapy.”

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