This story initially appeared on CityLab and is a part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Nearly three weeks after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, the island is in a grim state. Fewer than 15 % of residents have power, and far of the island has no clean drinking water. Supply of meals and different requirements, particularly to distant areas, has been hampered by quite a lot of ills, together with a scarcity of mobile service, washed-out roads, additional rainfall, and what analysts and Puerto Ricans say is a gradual and inadequate response from the US authorities.

One other concern slowing restoration? Maps—or lack of them. Whereas pre-Maria maps of Puerto Rico had been pretty full, their stage of element was nowhere close to that of different components of america. Platforms reminiscent of Google Maps are extra complete on the mainland than on the island, explains Juan Saldarriaga, a analysis scholar on the Middle for Spatial Analysis at Columbia College. It’s because corporations like Google usually create maps for monetary causes, promoting them to advertisers or as navigation units, so areas which have much less financial exercise are given much less consideration.

This lack of element impedes restoration efforts: With out fundamental data on the placement of buildings, as an illustration, rescue employees don’t understand how many individuals had been dwelling in an space earlier than the hurricane struck—and thus how a lot support is required.

Crowdsourced mapping may help. Saldarriaga lately organized a “mapathon” at Columbia, wherein volunteers examined satellite tv for pc imagery of Puerto Rico and added lacking buildings, roads, bridges, and different landmarks within the open-source platform OpenStreetMap. Whereas some universities and other groups are internet hosting related occasions, anybody with an web connection and pc can take part.

Volunteers have been concentrating on mapping town of Ponce, on Puerto Rico’s southern coast.


Saldarriaga and his co-organizers collaborated with Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, a nonprofit that works to create crowdsourced maps for support and growth work. Volunteers like Saldarriaga largely drive HOT’s “disaster mapping” initiatives, the primary of which occurred in 2010 after Haiti’s earthquake.

Within the aftermath, Haitians despatched texts to let rescuers know the place to seek out them; some even communicated whereas trapped underneath buildings. “It was exhausting to find these locations with no good map,” says Tyler Radford, HOT’s government director. “We sprang into motion and stuffed in fundamental roads and buildings as a place to begin for aid operations.”

Radford says that finally depend 2,800 volunteer cartographers have labored in OpenStreetMap in response to the current Caribbean hurricanes, including over half 1,000,000 buildings. Companions on the bottom, such because the American Pink Cross and FEMA, use these always up to date maps.

Dale Kunce is the lead on maps and open knowledge for the Pink Cross, and can also be the president of HOT’s board. He was lately in Puerto Rico, the place he leaned closely on OpenStreetMap. “As our groups went out within the discipline, that they had the freshest knowledge,” he says. “We’d additionally put knowledge into cell functions that allowed us to have offline maps, which [were] key as mobile service is sparse.”

Kunce’s groups would mark up the maps with street and bridge closures in order that future groups would know to keep away from these routes. “They’d go round them, or maybe work out a technique to get throughout, with the intention to attain a group that wants assist,” he says.

Kunce provides that he was struck by the truth that his and FEMA’s groups had been each utilizing these similar crowdsourced maps. “That is foundational for catastrophe response,” he says. “Getting everybody to have a standard working image is absolutely helpful.”

“Getting everybody to have a standard working image is absolutely helpful.”

Radford notes that whereas disaster mapping is crucial, the cartography can also be essential for long-term restoration. Nepal, as an illustration, remains to be recuperating from its 2015 earthquake. Within the wake of the catastrophe, HOT had eight,000 volunteers working with an area affiliate to map the affected areas intimately. “As soon as we create these maps,” says Radford, “they can be utilized down the street.” In Nepal, this has included assessing the harm stage for every particular person residence and planning reconstruction.

It’s clear that Puerto Rico can also be going to wish sustained help. The dearth of electrical energy, which can not be restored for months, is already sparking a severe health-care crisis. With many residents additionally nonetheless low on food and clean water, it’s no marvel that those that are ready to take action are leaving for the mainland. Mapping is one half of what’s going to should be a gargantuan US restoration effort, and Kunce says he’s in it for the lengthy haul.

“We’re going to be doing the identical form of work to know the place we will present long-term assist and support,” he says.

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