College geography club maps out first responder routes for developing countries

The club held a "humanitarian mapathon" mapped out roads and buildings so first responders could easier help the wounded in case of a disaster

By Tommy Wood
Greeley Tribune

GREELEY, Colo. — In the hours after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake devastated Kathmandu, Nepal, in April 2015, killing nearly 9,000 people, hundreds from around the world began a vital task: mapping out the infrastructure of the damaged areas so first responders could help the wounded or trapped.

The mappers used OpenStreetMap, an open-source mapping system, and satellite images from before the disaster to lay out Kathmandu's streets, squares and numerous historical buildings. Within 24 hours, the mappers accounted for more than 10,000 buildings and 24,000 roads.

The 35 people who gathered Tuesday night at Right Coast Pizza, 811 8th St., for a "humanitarian mapathon" sponsored by the University of Northern Colorado's Geography and GIS Club weren't working through such a crisis. This time they were preparing for one: They mapped out the roads and buildings of the Usme district in Bogotá, Colombia, for the eventuality that a natural disaster will strike there, too.

It may be hard to fathom, given the ubiquity in the U.S. of GPS technology like Google Maps, but "much of the developing world is not mapped," said UNC geography professor Jessica Salo, who started humanitarian mapathons at the school. "In a disaster, you don't know where the people and the buildings were."

The club holds these mapathons once per semester. Previously, it's mapped parts of Jamaica and countries in Africa to help with HIV relief.

Bogotá is due for a disaster: The city is situated on the Ring of Fire, the geological basin of the Pacific Ocean that's home to 75 percent of the world's volcanoes and 90 percent of its earthquakes.

Bogotá's streets are laid out in a sequence of town squares bisected by diagonal roads, inspired by the Spanish towns whence Bogotá's conquistador founders came. When the city of more than 8 million is struck by an earthquake or some other natural disaster, the work done at the mapathon could be the difference between people being found by rescuers or dying trapped under the rubble.

"A lot of the building code in Usme is out of date," said Julia Sobczak, a junior Geographic Information Systems major at UNC and Geography and GIS club member. "They're going to go kaput."

Mapathons have taken place worldwide since the mid-2000s, said Mike Thompson, a geographic information systems professional who participated in this mapathon with the club. In 2004, a British programmer named Steve Coast wanted to create a GPS map of London, but at the time the British government owned all the country's mapping data. So Coast took matters into his own hands, biking around London with a portable GPS unit, to create his own map. That was the start of OpenStreetMap, the open-source technology the participants in the mapathon used.

Thompson said he was "so taken" by Coast's story that he decided to get involved with mapathons. He helped with mapping efforts after the ruinous 2010 Haiti earthquake, the 2014-16 Ebola epidemic in west Africa and the Nepal earthquake.

Not all the participants in Tuesday's mapathon were so experienced, though. The club chose Bogotá precisely because it's at-risk but not the site of an ongoing crisis. That allowed beginners and community members to contribute, even if they needed to learn how. All they needed was a laptop and five to 10 minutes for club members to show them what to do.

Then they got to work, tracing roads and outlining buildings on high-resolution satellite images. The data becomes instantaneously available and is verified by people on-location using portable GPS devices. It's tedious, mind-numbing work, but it introduces the community to what the club does and helps the global community in an obscure but necessary way.

"We wanted to get students to give back," said Salo, the professor who started the mapathons. "We're always trying to use technology for the betterment of society."

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