On the map

Getting help to where it’s needed in the critical first hours after a disaster depends on good maps. But as recently as five years ago only 15 per cent of the world had been charted in detail.

Haiti map

Port-au-Prince by satellite (left), and the mapping done by users (right). This area had been well mapped before the earthquake hit, but users rapidly stepped up the mapping of hospitals, relief camp grounds and schools when the disaster occurred. Google 2010.

‘Mapmaking was a slow and expensive process, done by specially trained people – originally from the military,’ explains Lalitesh Katragadda, co-founder of Google India and lead developer of Map Maker, an online tool that lets people all over the world contribute to cartography. ‘It was originally done partly to enable access to natural resources and partly to ensure security. Modern considerations – like development and people’s needs – were not really taken into account. In many countries, particularly in the developing world, we are still using maps made in the 19th or 20th centuries.’
But don’t satellites record every millimetre of the planet? ‘True,’ acknowledges Lalitesh, ‘but satellite imagery can only show us where roads are, not how good they are. Nor can it identify schools, hospitals, electrical or water facilities and so on.’
Map Maker aims to close that gap: recent strides in high-resolution satellite imagery and map-making technology mean that anyone with access to a computer and the internet can contribute. ‘It’s easy: you go to Map Maker and search for the satellite imagery of your area,’ explains Lalitesh. ‘You look at the existing road network and add landmarks. Or if a road or track is not shown, you can add it. Typically, once someone starts, others jump in, adding information, and soon we see an explosion of mapping. Internal checking mechanisms ensure accuracy of the information, which gets fed into our sister service Google Maps.’
Map Maker was first used for disaster relief after Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar in May 2008, leaving some 80,000 dead, 60,000 missing and up to 2.5 million needing aid. ‘Within 12 hours of the cyclone, the United Nations contacted Google Maps, saying there were no maps of the country. We got the necessary clearances and within four days had mapped 3,000 logistics points, hospitals, major roads and waterways. Most of this was done outside the country, but it was locals, on the ground, who supplied some of the information.’
Map Maker was launched for public use in June 2008, and has gradually spread to more than 150 countries, with a focus on developing ones. And community mapping has already come in handy. ‘Haiti was a country we’d been working on, so when the earthquake hit, the maps were pretty good. We made them available for download and got Google phones loaded with the latest maps to aid workers. And all the time volunteers were updating us on changes in the island’s infrastructure.’
Google is also working with the UN to help create disaster-response maps. ‘It was heartening to see that, within 60 days of Map Maker opening up different parts of the world, the UN had used it to create 40 different disaster-response maps,’ says Lalitesh.
Despite all this progress, only another 15 per cent of the world has been mapped to neighbourhood standard through Map Maker – which means 70 per cent is left. ‘It’s slow going,’ says Lalitesh, but adds: ‘You can help. Pick any country that you know. We especially need help from people who have been to countries in Africa where internet connections aren’t so good, particularly road names, hospitals and educational institutions. Those are the first things that really matter when disaster strikes.’
For a nice before-and-after example of emergency response mapping, see www.unitar.org/unosat-and-google-shape-future-geographic-information-emergency-response.

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This post is also available in: French, Spanish