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How Crowdsourcing and GIS Tools Aid Disaster Response

Geographic information science (GIS) is essential in emergency management. With the help of modern technology, emergency response crews, aid organizations, and public health workers can make the best decisions to help the worst-hit areas. This is particularly important during natural disasters when responders have a matter of hours or even minutes to take action.

After disaster strikes, emergency response teams need to work fast, and crowdsourcing can help. When partnered with GIS, crowdsourced information can quickly and accurately paint a picture of the situation.

Here are a few examples of GIS and crowdsourcing working together to help when disaster strikes:

Digital Humanitarianism Helps Connect Family Members

A mother and child.

In the aftermath of an earthquake in Haiti in 2010, Patrick Meier was struggling to locate a family member. Phone lines were overloaded from people checking in on each other and it was difficult for aid workers to answer every call and locate individuals. This was when Meier had the idea to combine GIS, big data, and crowdsourcing to create a digital humanitarianism to help people communicate after a crisis.

According to Extreme Tech, Meier’s tool combines tweets, tagged images, and hashtags taken in the disaster area and applies them to a map. This helps family members who aren’t located in the crisis region see exactly what places are hit the worst. For example, if something were to happen in New York City, family members could see which area (such as Queens or downtown Manhattan) was mostly affected.

Along with helping families connect with loved ones and learn the extent of the damage, aid workers can also use digital humanitarianism to learn where to send resources. They can look at the map to see the number of posts created and see the extent of the damage in the photos: “Tweets, tagged images, hashtags, and disaster victims reporting their experiences on social media can all be added to a map of the disaster area in order to determine where the area was most heavily hit.” This way, places that were hit the worst will receive the most aid.

GIS Tools Alert Targeted Areas About a Disaster

Natural disasters are often highly targeted. A tornado ripping through Kansas can devastate one town while leaving another untouched. A hurricane might leave one part of Florida flooded and ripped apart, while people in another part of the state only experience a mild breeze. GIS alerts make it easy to target one specific location and only alert the people who are likely to be affected.

According to MIR3, a maker of geo-targeted emergency notification systems, these targeted alerts can provide valuable information about what people need to do and when. For example, GIS alerts can tell people when to evacuate for a hurricane or when it’s too late and the best option is to take cover.

GIS alerts become more accurate with crowdsourcing. By tracking the effects of an impending disaster (like a hurricane or a flood) officials and news alert systems can learn the extent of the damage in real time and update their messages as needed. Accurate alerts can also reduce false alarms, which means that people will be more likely to listen whenever they hear an alert.

Advance information and geospatial intelligence can save lives and reduce the amount of aid needed in a devastated area, allowing people to evacuate before impending disaster arrives.

GIS Helps Aid Workers Find Safe Routes

Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines in 2013, and aid workers rushed to the island nation to provide food, clean drinking water, and medical supplies. While they wanted to canvass the island as efficiently as possible, they faced major challenges: the typhoon had washed away some roads, blocked others, and caused several buildings to collapse. Without the right GIS mapping, aid workers could either get stuck without a road to travel on or arrive at a hospital to find that it had collapsed.

UN offices immediately deployed people around the world to analyze satellite imagery and map information about the conditions in the Philippines. More than 1,000 people in 82 countries contributed to these maps, which identified working buildings and key roads that were available to travel on. What normally would have taken days or even weeks to determine was completed in a matter of hours. The maps also featured real-time updates as more people shared photos and information.

With this information, aid workers knew exactly where they needed to go to provide aid to victims and what road options they had to get there quickly.

Crowdsourced Mapping Can Also Be Preventative

The Guardian recently shared a story about Dr. Nama Budhathoki, who grew up in a remote Nepalese village. Budhathoki was inspired by the GIS response to the Haiti earthquake and worried that the same thing could happen in Nepal. He launched the citizen mapping initiative Kathmandu Living Labs (KLL). With the help of students and volunteers, Budhathoki started mapping the Kathmandu valley. If disaster struck, he wanted to be prepared.

The crowdsourcing paid off. Less than five years after the earthquake in Haiti and the launch of KLL, a massive earthquake struck Nepal. Budhathoki set up his office in the school parking lot because the aftershocks made it too dangerous to go inside. By tapping into the KLL data, along with tens of thousands of volunteers across the world, he was able to create accurate maps of the damage to Kathmandu and determine what areas were hit the hardest.

Not only did local responders turn to Budhathoki for help reading maps of the damage, but so did the Nepalese military and the UN. His data exceeded anything else the government had to work with. This meant his vision five years earlier potentially saved lives across all of Nepal.
While crowdsourcing across the world helped after the disaster struck, the original mapping from volunteers when Budhathoki first started the project contributed significantly. This shows that crowdsourcing can help when it’s preventative as well as reactive.

If you’re passionate about helping during a crisis, consider pursuing a degree in GIS online through the University of Southern California Geographic Information Science and Technology Graduate Programs. You might play a part in the creation of the next GIS tool to help during a natural disaster.