How Online Mapmakers Are Helping the Red Cross Save Lives in the Philippines

Volunteers across the world are building the digital infrastructure for the organization's Typhoon Haiyan relief efforts
Hundreds of destroyed homes are visible in this aerial photograph from the Samar province of The Philippines. (Reuters)

It will be months before we know the true damage brought about by super typhoon Haiyan. The largest death tolls now associated with the storm are only estimates. Aid workers from across the world are now flying to the island nation, or they just recently arrived there. They—and Filipinos—will support survivors and start to rebuild.

But they will be helped by an incredible piece of technology, a worldwide, crowd-sourced humanitarian collaboration made possible by the Internet. 

What is it? It’s a highly detailed map of the areas affected by super typhoon Haiyan, and it mostly didn’t exist three days ago, when the storm made landfall.

Since Saturday, more than 400 volunteers have made nearly three quarters of a million additions to a free, online map of areas in and around the Philippines. Those additions reflect the land before the storm, but they will help Red Cross workers and volunteers make critical decisions after it about where to send food, water, and supplies.

These things are easy to hyperbolize, but in the Philippines, now, it is highly likely that free mapping data and software—and the community that support them—will save lives.

The Wikipedia of maps 

The changes were made to OpenStreetMap (OSM), a sort of Wikipedia of maps. OSM aims to be a complete map of the world, free to use and editable by all. Created in 2004, it now has over a million users.

I spoke to Dale Kunce, senior geospatial engineer at the American Red Cross, about how volunteer mapping helps improve the situation in the Philippines. 

The Red Cross, internationally, recently began to use open source software and data in all of its projects, he said. Free software reduces or eliminates project “leave behind” costs, or the amount of money required to keep something running after the Red Cross leaves. Any software or data compiled by the Red Cross are now released under an open-source or share-alike license.

While Open Street Map has been used in humanitarian crises before, the super typhoon Haiyan is the first time the Red Cross has coordinated its use and the volunteer effort around it.

How the changes were made

The 410 volunteers who have edited OSM in the past three days aren’t all mapmaking professionals. Organized by the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team on Twitter, calls went out for the areas of the Philippines in the path of the storm to be mapped.

What does that mapping look like? Mostly, it involves “tracing” roads into OSM using satellite data. The OSM has a friendly editor which underlays satellite imagery—on which infrastructure like roads are clearly visible—beneath the image of the world as captured by OSM. Volunteers can then trace the path of a road, as they do in this GIF, created by the D.C.-based start-up, Mapbox:


Volunteers can also trace buildings in Mapbox using the same visual editor. Since Haiyan made landfall, volunteers have traced some 30,000 buildings.

Maps, on the ground 

How does that mapping data help workers on the ground in the Philippines? First, it lets workers there print paper maps using OSM data which can be distributed to workers in the field. The American Red Cross has dispatched four of its staff members to the Philippines, and one of them—Helen Welch, an information management specialist—brought with her more than 50 paper maps depicting the city of Tacloban and other badly hit areas.

The red line shows the path of super typhoon Haiyan and the colored patches show where volunteers made additions to OpenStreetMap this weekend. Notice the extent of the edits in Tacloban, a city of more than 220,000 that bore the brunt of the storm. (American Red Cross)

Those maps were printed out on Saturday, before volunteers made most of the changes to the affected area in OSM. When those, newer data are printed out on the ground, they will include almost all of the traced buildings, and rescuers will have a better sense of where “ghost” buildings should be standing. They’ll also be on paper, so workers can write, draw, and stick pins to them. 

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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