A few dozen University of Wyoming students took to their computers one evening last week to support relief work in the wake of Tropical Cyclone Winston.
The category 5 storm hit Fiji in late February and was the most powerful storm on record in the southern hemisphere. The storm produced wind gusts greater than 180 miles per hour and killed at least 40 people.
Chen Xu, assistant professor in the Department of Geography, said an estimated 24,000 homes were damaged or destroyed and more than 120,000 people are in need of shelter or assistance.
Most of Fiji’s 900,000 residents live on two main islands, but more than 100 islands in the Pacific Ocean country’s archipelago are inhabited. To deliver aid, organizations need accurate and detailed maps so they know where to go and how to get there, but such maps don’t exist for all parts of the country.
During an event Wednesday evening called a humanitarian mapathon, students and members of the Laramie community used satellite imagery to map roads and structures in Fiji. Working on a platform called OpenStreetMap, they recorded information that will be used by relief organizations in coming weeks and months.
Humanitarian mapping, also known as crowdsourced mapping, is a process by which people across the globe use satellite imagery to draw maps that can be used in global positioning system and geographic information system programs. The process still requires a human touch.
“The images themselves are not understandable by computer, so we still have to use humans to extract those features,” Xu said. “We need to turn the image into something that’s recognizable by computer.”
OpenStreetMap was developed in the United Kingdom in 2004 in response to the creation of digital map data that wasn’t freely available to the public. The aim was to develop the Wikipedia of maps.
In 2010, when Haiti was struck by an earthquake, mappers jumped into action and started mapping the impoverished Caribbean country to assist aid workers.
That sparked the idea among the mapping community of working on vulnerable areas ahead of time.
“What we’re doing is very important, said Mike Thompson, a volunteer with OpenStreetMap who lead the UW effort. “We’re helping a lot of people around the world.”
Thompson said maps generally exist for administrative, economic or security reasons.
“If you’re a poor country, none of that stuff applies,” he said. “There are maps, but they’re very low-resolution, small in scale and lack detail. You need very detailed maps to deliver aid.”
Maps to help aid workers could show where people live, where the roads are and what condition they’re in.
Thompson led a computer lab overflowing with volunteers in the mapping process last week. Once logged in, a mapper signed up to receive a tiny slice of land on which to work. The focus was tracing the path of roads and outlining buildings.
Thompson said afterward more than 50 volunteers, including three participating remotely, mapped about 2,200 buildings in Fiji. The initial information will be reviewed by an experienced mapper, then validated by someone on the ground.
Bruce Reagan, who works in the geographic information industry, volunteered at the mapathon in order to be part of the humanitarian work taking place.
“I like to support the (OpenStreetMap) effort and all sorts of open-source GIS software,” he said.
The University of Wyoming Geology Club helped organized the event, said Club President Kirk Scheffler. Organizers were planning to map Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, which has experienced recent flooding, until changing their plans in response to the cyclone.
“This is our first event in Wyoming,” he said.