June 1, 2015
UW students use open source mapping to aid relief efforts in Nepal
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.