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December 3rd, 2013
Mapping Team Explores New Territory in Wake of Typhoon Haiyan

A British Red Cross team is using the latest satellite photos and reports from a range of sources to help update maps that could save lives in the aftermath of the disaster.

The work, in partnership with the American Red Cross, is part of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team project – an interactive map that can be viewed and edited by anyone with an internet connection.

The British Red Cross mapping team has 17 members and has been active since 2010, but in the wake of the disaster is focusing its efforts on a single task for the first time.

How the mapping process works

Using satellite images taken after the typhoon, the team is updating maps of the worst affected areas with information about damage to buildings. By looking at recent pictures to find out whether structures are partly or totally destroyed, they can give aid workers information about blocked roads or the scale of destruction in a particular neighbourhood.

Other details mapped include the number of people reported missing in different areas and the location of Red Cross aid workers. Sources include figures from the Red Cross and other organisations like the UN. The maps are ‘layered’ so users can choose to see the information that’s relevant to them.

Updates are made every hour of every day, so the maps are constantly evolving source of data. In a fast-changing situation like the aftermath of a typhoon, up-to-date information can make a huge difference to the work of those on the ground.

Andrew Braye, who leads the British Red Cross’ involvement in the project, said the organisation is using this kind of mapping more and more. It’s made possible by new technology and the growth of online collaboration tools such as OpenStreetMap and Google Docs. These let individuals and organisations work together to create new online tools that can be used by everyone.

But it takes smart planning to deliver good results. “The trick is doing what’s useful and not duplicating what other people are doing,” Andrew said.

“It’s amazing to help”

The team has been using its mapping expertise to support the British Red Cross for three years – helping everyone from aid workers planning trips abroad to volunteers dealing with emergencies in the UK.

As well as Red Cross staff, its members include digital volunteers recruited through adverts on the internet and events linked to digital mapping. The team usually works on a wide range of projects – but for the first time has come together to focus on a single task.

Volunteer Johnny Henshall has recently completed a Masters in geographical information systems. He said: “It’s a chance for me to use the skills I’ve just got. This is what I want to be doing. It’s amazing to be able to help – there aren’t many opportunities to do this for a humanitarian organisation.”

Andrew says the team’s “revolving door” of volunteers brings in people with highly specialised skills who would normally cost a huge amount to employ. But many are willing to give their time for a few weeks or months between paid contracts.

Could you join the team?

If you have some spare time and know how to use PostgreSQL, PostGIS, GeoServer and OpenLayers, the team would like to hear from you. Email them for more information.