How 'crisis mapping' is helping relief efforts in Nepal

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Before and after of Kathmandu area on OpenStreetMap from April 28 to 5 MayImage source, Pierre Beland, Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team
Image caption,
Kathmandu, and nearby areas before and after mapping efforts were ramped up after the quake

Thousands of people in remote parts of Nepal are still in need of medical help and basic supplies. But with roads damaged and buildings collapsed, knowing what aid is needed and where, is a challenge. One group of Nepalis, backed by a global community, is trying to change that by "crisis mapping" Nepal.

In their "situation room" in Kathmandu, Nama Budhathoki, and his team of volunteers, process the hundreds of reports coming in from all over Nepal asking for help.

"Urgent need of food and tent," says one before giving an exact location. Others ask for water to be brought, saying "main issue is that the water source is a half-hour walk away, across a landslide".

Yet more ask for medical supplies; bandages, pain killers and diarrhoea medicine.

"Every morning when I wake up I read those requests... sometimes my heart just breaks," says 45-year-old Nama.

His non-profit Kathmandu Living Labs (KLL) is part of a global crowd-sourcing effort to accurately map Nepal after the quake. They also have an online platform for people to report where they are and what they need.

Image source, Kathmandu Living Labs
Image caption,
KKL's first 'situation room' after the quake was this car park, with aftershocks still rattling buildings

In 2010 Nama was doing a PhD in crowdsourcing, open data and social and mobile media at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign when the Haiti earthquake struck.

That was when he realised that Nepal needed to be better mapped.

"Navigation in Kathmandu [was already] a nightmare; we don't have a very good address system. If you get an invitation to dinner, to reach that house you have to make six or seven calls to get directions.

"Nepal sits in one of the most risky zones for earthquakes and other disasters. In Haiti they made [the map] after - I wanted to make the map before the earthquake."

And so at the end of 2013, with a team of six volunteers, he started mapping Nepal using open data software called OpenStreetMap.

How does open mapping work?

Image source, Humanitarian OpenStreetMap

OpenStreetMap is a free, editable map of the world that anyone can add to, sometimes described as the Wikipedia of maps.

The community of people online ranges from professional cartographers to anyone that wants to help.

Aerial imagery provided by companies like DigitalGlobe is used as well as GPS devices and field maps.

Those mapping, who co-ordinate and help each other, break the imagery into "tiles" and literally trace roads, buildings and highways onto the map.

The work of new mappers is validated by more experienced mappers to ensure accuracy.

When the earthquake struck, Nama first made sure his family was safe, but then quickly started recruiting volunteers. KLL had set up operations to co-ordinate the mapping effort within 24 hours of the quake.

He now has about 36 people in Kathmandu, along with more than 4,300 remote contributors from all over the world, helping relief agencies get a clearer picture on the ground.

It's called "crisis mapping" and similar technology and crowdsourcing were used in Haiti and after Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013. Some in the mapping community who helped with those disasters are sharing their skills and knowledge online for Nepal.

Groups as far away as the University of Sao Paulo and cities in the US, as well as close neighbours in India, have held two or three day "mapathons" to help.

Ushahidi, another piece of technology inherited from Haiti and other disasters, was used by KLL to build the platform for reports to come in from anywhere in Nepal.

Image source, Kathmandu Living Labs
Image caption,
Individual reports highlight what supplies or help are needed and where

They are sent via an app, SMS or by calling - and then combined with the plotted data on the map by Nama's team. They can then tell relief agencies exactly what is needed and where.

Nama says in the immediate aftermath of the quake, relief workers would head out to remote areas to help, but would have no information on what was required.

"They took rice, for example. When they got there, they realised that's not what the people there needed, they need tents.

"The problem was in the information. What do people need and what relief can be offered?" he says.

The Red Cross was already working with KLL on mapping Nepal in preparation for an event like this, says Dale Kunce, senior geospatial engineer for the American Red Cross based in Washington DC.

He says they are using the maps after the quake to guide teams on the ground about things like which routes might be prone to landslides, where possible distribution centres could be based and where banks are.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
In some villages, people are still without water and food

"I wish there were a thousand KLLs all around the world for groups like us, to provide local context and grounding," says Mr Kunce.

"What KLL has done is empowered people to have an understanding of the community around them and helped humanitarian actors to spend our money more wisely and help more people."

He said, however, that he was not aware how widely their teams were using the individual reporting platform provided by KLL.

Nama says the Nepal army checks the individual reports every two hours and passes on relevant information to their relief operations divisions.

"We had a report sent in by some people trapped in a remote area, and in a couple of days they were rescued," he says.

"At the end of the day we know our reports help rescue operators to save lives, or help people in some way. That is such a satisfying experience.

"I've been able to bring a number of young people together, energise them to do something collectively.

"We need to grow the culture of working together to fix the problems facing Nepal."

Additional reporting by Pamela Koh

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