UW Today

June 1, 2015

UW students use open source mapping to aid relief efforts in Nepal

Civil and Environmental Engineering

Half a world away, University of Washington civil and envi­ron­men­tal engi­neer­ing stu­dents trace the out­lines of roads, paths and build­ings in Nepal from their lap­tops.

Using open data soft­ware Open­StreetMap, the students in assistant professor Jes­sica Kamin­sky’s Civil Engi­neer­ing in Devel­op­ing Com­mu­ni­ties class joined an online com­mu­nity effort to turn satel­lite imagery of Nepal into maps and aid the earth­quake relief effort. These dig­i­tized maps provide emer­gency respon­ders and relief coordinators responding to the 7.8 magnitude earthquake and powerful aftershocks in Nepal with crit­i­cal data to guide teams deployed on the ground.

Find­ing that one lit­tle vil­lage with no major high­ways and being able to tell some­one that that vil­lage is there is really reward­ing. Because if it’s not marked on that map, then there are a lot of cracks that it could slip through,” said civil and environmental engineering grad­u­ate stu­dent Leigh Allison.

Map­ping in Nepal by Open­StreetMap com­mu­nity

Map­ping in Nepal by Open­StreetMap com­mu­nityMap­box, flickr CC 2.0

The Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team has mobilized more than 4,000 volunteer mappers to provide basic information and help establish relief priorities in Kathmandu and remote mountainous regions that were affected or leveled by the quake. The massive project is divided up into discrete tasks, such as mapping roads, residential neighborhoods, villages or landslides in a particular area. The volunteer mappers also look for open spaces that could serve as helicopter landing zones to deliver supplies and identify impromptu camps where large numbers of displaced residents have gathered.

With each UW stu­dent con­tribut­ing five hours of assigned emer­gency map­ping, the class’ efforts totaled 120 hours of mean­ing­ful dis­as­ter response work, and some students plan to continue that work. Even just a few hours makes a dif­fer­ence with thou­sands of vol­un­teers work­ing around the globe.

If you look at the sta­tis­tics next to the maps, it’s really cool to see how much time peo­ple have donated,” said grad­u­ate stu­dent James Lew.

Stu­dents remarked on how accessible the worldwide crowdsourcing process was and how reward­ing it felt to see their skills make an imme­di­ate impact beyond the walls of the classroom.

It’s almost like say­ing, ‘Don’t for­get us,’” said Lew. “There’s a ten­dency to want to do the major cities and the infra­struc­ture that’s clos­est to the major high­ways, but as you get fur­ther and fur­ther out, there’s still houses out there that are dis­con­nected. It’s really cool to draw a box around them and say, ‘there’s a fam­ily here, don’t for­get them.’”

Engi­neer­ing in Devel­op­ing Com­mu­ni­ties exam­ines infra­struc­ture and con­struc­tion in very poor, often remote loca­tions, and it dives into top­ics such as san­i­ta­tion, energy, cross-cultural com­mu­ni­ca­tion and dis­as­ters. The emer­gency map­ping project tied into many of the class themes, Kamin­sky explained, and “stu­dents feel like they’re mak­ing a mean­ing­ful con­tri­bu­tion with their classwork.”

In this class, we try to look beyond the tech­ni­cal aspects of engi­neer­ing to how what we do affects com­mu­ni­ties,” said senior Nick Orsi. “With this project, the work that you did could directly relate to sav­ing lives. Just hav­ing that thought process behind you, it really moti­vated you to do good work that will hope­fully make it eas­ier for peo­ple to help out some of the vic­tims there.”

For more information, contact Kaminsky at jkaminsk@uw.edu.