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Remote Data Team Helped Put Haiti Back on the Map

The Earth Institute’s Haiti Research and Policy Program launched its Spring 2015 Haiti Dialogue Series March 5 by welcoming Patrick Meier to share his perspective on the evolution of the crisis mapper community that emerged in response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and has evolved into a global Digital Humanitarian Network. The presentation reinforced our arguments that these new data sources are now available at lower costs and can be immediately integrated into both the emergency recovery phase as well as the sustainable development planning process in Haiti, as well as other countries.

Digital Humanitarians by Patrick Meier
Meier recently published his first book that documents the rapid formation of the digital humanitarian and documents the innovative applications of crisis data collection and mapping techniques.

Meir’s talk, co-sponsored with the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), Master’s in Development Practice Program and SIPA New Media Task Force, was moderated by Alex de Sherbinin, associate director at CIESIN. The talk focused on how a group of Tufts University students working from their dorm rooms in Boston used data collection and mapping tools to support the humanitarian response on the ground in the Haiti and Philippines disasters.

Before the Haiti earthquake, few publicly available maps of the country existed. Google Maps displayed the main roads of Port au Prince and a few main highways. More detailed national transportation maps had been developed by the Haitian government cartographic agency (CNIGS) and the UN peacekeeping analysts, but the buildings housing the data were destroyed by the earthquake and not available. Yet, the humanitarian community needed rapid access to up-to-date maps.

Realizing that the crisis had thoroughly undermined Haiti’s already insufficient data systems, Meier and his team set up a center at Tufts staffed by hundreds of volunteers. Utilizing high-resolution satellite imagery as it became available after the earthquake, Meier and colleagues went through image by image to build updated maps of road networks, identify building damage and key facilities such as hospitals, and monitor expansion of refugee camps. Within 30 days after the earthquake, the majority of Haiti’s national road network and 100 percent of the Port au Prince network was mapped.

This visualization from Open Street Maps shows the expansion of public transportation maps from community mappers immediately following the Jan. 12, 2010, Haiti earthquake. The white flashes indicate edits to the map generally by tracing satellite/aerial photography. (Source: Open Street Maps.)

Haiti 2010 earthquake
Port-au-Prince Haiti, Jan. 20, 2010. Photo: Creative Commons/newbeatphoto

The days after the earthquake in Haiti remained chaotic, with large portions of the capital’s phone services damaged and jammed, roads unpassable with piles of rubble, and high numbers of government civil servants and United Nations country teams were unaccounted for. In spite of crippled in-country capability, Meier and the thousands of colleagues at the Digital Humanitarian Network demonstrated that the distant network of digital humanitarians could step up from afar to support critical rapid damage assessments. Their efforts complimented the engagement of UN colleagues on ground level, as they prioritized individual building structural safety assessments.

During the discussion, de Sherbinin raised one idea of how to potentially integrate the volunteer crisis data and mapping response into global mapping efforts, specifically the global roads initiative. He raised the specific example of the CIESIN data set developed under the auspices of the CODATA Global Roads Data Development Task Group, Global Roads Open Access Data Set (gROADS)v1), which is comprised of multiple data sources including crowd-sourced data from OpenStreetMap.

Meier’s presentation reinforces the Haiti Research and Policy Program’s vision that new data sources are available at low cost and can and should be immediately integrated into the recovery and development process in Haiti, as well as many other countries. But the availability of open data alone doesn’t ensure adoption and awareness for all user communities. The challenge remains to develop coherent processes that ensure these global innovations are integrated into ongoing and post-crisis national government and civil society partners’ planning and decision-making processes.

Despite the extensive mapping accomplished following the earthquake, Haiti still lacks critical national-scale data inventories of its facilities and infrastructure, as discussed in previous Haiti Dialogue Series highlighting how Haitian policy-makers continue to seek out new technologies and information streams to improve decision-making about investments and social service programs for Haiti.

About the Earth Institute Haiti Dialogue Series: Now in its third year, having hosted more than 20 sessions, the Haiti Dialogue Series hosts forums that bring together Earth Institute researchers and students and key figures of the Haitian diaspora including philanthropic foundations and Haitian policy experts, scholars and government officials to stimulate critical analysis of a range of topics that both challenge prevailing assumptions and propose paths towards a more sustainable future in Haiti. For more information, visit the HRPP Web site or the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN).

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