Open Data, Local Knowledge and Geospatial Technologies: Public Participation is key to disaster recovery

September 15, 2021

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Author’s Note: In 2010, I participated in the humanitarian mapping effort for Haiti, hosted by Crisis Commons at NPR Headquarters in Washington, D.C. Many organizations, in D.C. and around the world, participated in the effort. Significant strides were made in mapping Haiti’s infrastructure and the results of the earthquake. My work, mapping roads in the Haitian countryside, has always stuck with me, and while I am saddened to know that an earthquake has, again, hit Haiti, I am honored to have been a part of the work in 2010 and to be able to share this article in 2021, just weeks after the most recent event. I am proud to be a part of a spatial community that is saving lives. (Image by David Mark from Pixabay)

In January 2010, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake hit the country of Haiti. First responders realized very quickly that there were no current paper maps of the country and no available digital maps. Prior to the 2010 earthquake, few publicly available maps of the country existed. Google Maps contained little more than the main roads of Port-au-Prince. Disaster response teams were stuck with maps made in the 1960s by one or two of the “three-letter agencies.” 

The GIS and technology community around the world quickly pulled together and were able to develop open, digital, spatial data and public maps that would ultimately be used by organizations like Fairfax County Fire and Rescue’s Virginia Task Force 1, the World Health Organization, and international, religious, and regionally- or locally-based NGOs.

There are many challenges faced by geospatial technologists responding to these kinds of natural disasters and unexpected large-scale events, as well as by the people who are impacted by them. Aside from the practical issues of responding to the needs of the community, there were also many issues related to understanding the situation at hand, planning a response, and ultimately, putting that plan in place.

Some of the related issues were:

  • Uncertainty — Emergencies evolve and often include rapid shifts in needs and response.
  • Lack of data — either a lack of information or limited access (proprietary data or gatekeeping of resources).
  • Limited sharing of resources, including data, maps, etc.
  • Coordinating with multiple agencies and different entities with different needs or interests.

The Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team is an international organization “committed to humanitarian action and community development through open mapping.” HOT’s first official deployment was the 2010 earthquake, only five years after Mikel Maron, OpenStreetMap Foundation board member and former HOT board member, first presented the idea of using Open Street Map for disaster response. Now, HOT has over 100 projects in over 60 countries. HOT and other similar organizations are dedicated to the development of open-source data and tools for disaster response and other areas such as disaster risk reduction, sustainable development and gender equality. Other, similar volunteer-based organizations like GISCorps (started in 2003 by Shoreh Elhami, GISP) were instrumental in responding to and supporting post-earthquake assessments. Much of the data collected by these organizations were provided to the local response teams as well as made available to the public for additional support through other projects.

The keys to the success of the response in Haiti were multifold. There was, as previously mentioned, a huge collaborative effort from many organizations, locally and internationally. Geospatial and other technologies were employed to assist with response and recovery beyond the basic data collection needed at the start. Various technologies, including short message service were combined with GIS to provide a comprehensive view of the situation and the physical and social environment. Additionally, geospatial technologies were incorporated into the “every day” planning and development efforts in Haiti.

Multiple storms ravaged Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, and then in August 2021, another earthquake rocked the country — this time, a 7.2-magnitude earthquake. It is sad to hear of so many lives lost and so much infrastructure damage, but the geospatial community has learned a lot since 2010, and there is much more that can be done as part of a disaster response.

Similar but not the Same

There were a number of similarities between the response to the 2010 and 2021 earthquakes in Haiti:

  • Coordination between multiple agencies, different levels of government, and public and private sector organizations is always going to be a challenge in any large-scale event. In addition to the mutual goal, every organization has its own needs and its own agenda.
  • Foreign organizations don’t necessarily understand the needs of the local culture.
  • Public participation or participatory GIS continues to be a part of disaster planning and recovery efforts.

Hackathons like Crisis Commons’ CrisisCamps are still a big part of technology communities. HOT is very active in this space, as are many other groups like Code for America — and local affiliates — and Black Girls Code. While not every event is focused on disaster, these organizations all work toward building open data and open tools and resources for people and communities to use.

“Change is the only constant.”  —Heraclitus, Greek philosopher

Technology changes all the time, and geospatial technologies are no less impacted by this than any other area of tech. Some of the ways in which technology has changed since the 2010 earthquake in Haiti are fairly obvious to the average geospatial professional who has worked in the field for a while:

  • Technology overall is less expensive.
  • Open data is more prevalent and almost an expected outcome.
  • Computers are faster and have more memory/processing power.
  • Drones are now much more common and have improved in terms of size, resolution and ease of use.
  • Data science is being used for analysis of the event, mitigation and recovery.
  • Automation is available via many more programming languages and is fairly accessible even to the layperson with limited knowledge of those languages.
  • Web-based GIS tools are now common.
  • Open source is key.

Robert Horne, ENP, an expert in public safety and emergency management, said in a recent interview thatthe capabilities of geospatial technology have improved in the past ten years, but more importantly, the use of geospatial technology has permeated disaster response and mitigation operations to the point of becoming the driver of both rather than an afterthought.”

Mr. Horne went on to say that it is now possible to do much more of the data collection on-site with “on-site remote sensing and spatially-enabled damage assessment tools…” Front-line responders can collect data immediately, on-site, and even in some cases, while the disaster is still active.

Drones, for example, were available in 2010, but are now even more so and they are easier for laypeople and subject matter experts to use, as I recently discussed with Arron Lee, a photogrammetrist in Colorado. Drones can be used on-site, handled by front-line responders, and data can be uploaded to a cloud-based server wirelessly. Image resolution continues to increase even on the lower cost models, and better resolution on drones means better quality imagery — orthophotos, LiDAR, etc. — to the point that you can now see footprints on the ground. Ten years ago, you would be lucky if you could see individual cars.

Because of the 2010 earthquake and subsequent weather disasters, the World Bank employed cellphone data records, combined with machine learning techniques, to identify the most common traffic patterns in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, as well as the vulnerabilities of the transport network subject to flooding risk in order to better plan and protect the city’s transport infrastructure going forward.

“…high-quality, timely geospatial information, although critical to improve lives and livelihoods, is often not current, shared, or integrated with other necessary data — or simply overlooked in policymaking.” — Geospatial Technology and Information for Development,” The World Bank, October 2, 2019.

 One of the biggest changes between 2010 and 2021 is the availability of data and web-based mapping tools. Open data was an important part of the 2010 earthquake support and recovery activities, but in the 11 years since that first HOT event, open data has exploded into a resource that is more available, higher quality, and more easily accessible to the average person. Many municipalities are now offering data via APIs or direct download, and open-source mapping/data development tools like OSM, QGIS, and some others, have brought mapping capabilities to the people. Build-it-yourself and low-cost off-the-shelf drones make it possible for the average person to collect data and collaborate with organizations like HOT. If you are handy, crafty or technologically savvy, it is possible to do some amazing things.

Collaboration Earns More Than Collection

There are two main groups of people that typically are involved in a disaster response: the local residents who are experiencing the disaster and the front-line responders who are supporting those residents.

Dr. Kimberly Baldwin is a marine ecologist, researcher and technology champion in Barbados. She works extensively with local people in the Caribbean, including Barbados, Jamaica and many other islands. Dr. Baldwin has lived in the Caribbean for over 20 years, and learned very quickly upon locating there that putting focus on collaboration with local people is the key to making a project work. “I firmly believe,” she said, “that when you work together and you collaborate with people, you actually get more. And, there's enough for everybody to go around.” Whether it is disaster response or collecting data on sargassum, Dr. Baldwin firmly believes that “participatory research approaches allows for the engagement of stakeholders and a better understanding of local knowledge on the environment and the various interactions occurring within the ecosystem.

Dr. Baldwin confessed that she didn’t intend to get into participatory GIS, but when she was working on her master’s degree, she found a passion for learning about and mapping the things that conventional science and GIS don’t take into account. It’s hard to balance government needs with what local people need, but getting technology into the hands of the people who live in the community is critical for collecting data that is meaningful and will present the best possible outcome.

Arron Lee has worked extensively with organizations that have to address either the response to, or the results of, a natural disaster at the local level. Even when choosing a company with which to partner to collect imagery data, it comes down to “…are they local? Do you have a relationship to them? Can you trust them?” Lee described some of the experiences he has had with local subject matter experts and how the technology is useful, but the knowledge of the local people is what ultimately makes the difference. In fire emergencies, search and rescue and disaster response, “…you have to use a good, reputable source [of information and the community] so that you know they’re going to be doing it right.” There is not a lot of room for error in these situations.

 Horne said that change has been slow in the emergency management arena but it is happening. “The advancements in [disaster] response with GIS and geospatial technologies,” he said, are due to “better, easier to use systems, a broader understanding of the technology, readily available, locally sourced, highly accurate geospatial data.” The most important piece, particularly for the front-line responders, is the now wide acceptance of digital geospatial technologies “in a historically analog profession.”

“Overcoming that last hurdle,” said Horne, “took far longer than it should, but I think we are finally there, to the point where GIS really can save the day.”

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