W&M Students, AidData Crowdsource Maps for Nepal Relief Efforts

WYDaily.com is your source for free news and information in Williamsburg, James City & York Counties.

William & Mary undergraduates use online tools to crowdsource maps of Nepal to assist recovery efforts after the April 25 earthquake. (Courtesy AidData)
William & Mary undergraduates use online tools to crowdsource maps of Nepal to assist recovery efforts after the April 25 earthquake. (Courtesy AidData)

International efforts to help Nepal recover from the April 25 earthquake that devastated the country are receiving help from an unlikely source – a house on Scotland Street.

Students at the College of William & Mary are working to develop digital maps of the country to help coordinate relief efforts on the ground in devastated areas of the South Asian country.

The students’ efforts are being organized by AidData, a partnership between the College of William & Mary, Brigham Young University and Development Gateway dedicated to researching international development and foreign aid.

The students are using two crowdsourcing tools – OpenStreetMap and Tomnod – to create the maps, by comparing satellite images of Nepal from before and after the earthquake and tracking devastation.

“Anyone is able to use this website and see, ‘There was a building here and now there’s not. We’ll tag that as major destruction; there was a road here and now I see a lot of problems with this road and tag that as a site of destruction,’” said Ashley Napier, a junior program manager with AidData.

The maps provide aid workers with a clearer picture of the destruction in the country and allow them to prioritize aid to the areas most in need.

Napier said two “mapping parties” last week attracted about 35 students to help contribute to the crowdsourcing effort.

“The students have been phenomenally helpful,” AidData Geospatial Scientist Dan Runfola said. “I think that’s the front and center of this story.”

While AidData has been organizing the student events – and providing refreshments for the hours-long sessions – Napier said the idea to crowdsource the digital mapmaking came from one William & Mary student. Lu Sevier, a junior at the college, organized a tutorial to train her fellow students to use OpenStreetMaps and Tomnod to create the maps.

Runfola said the crowdsourced maps were being used by those leading the recovery effort.

“We have a lot of contacts on the ground with local NGOs, some INGOs and some government officials,” he said. “We’re actively providing that data to them on a nearly daily basis.”

While AidData is not the only organization contributing to the effort to crowdsource maps in the wake of the Nepal earthquake, Runfola said it was almost uniquely situated to provide specialized assistance to international organizations operating in the country after the disaster.

The organization regularly sends undergraduate fellows to work with international development organizations around the world. It had planned to send eight fellows to Nepal this summer, and Napier and Runfola had visited the capital of Kathmandu in December to help organize the program.

The relationships they developed with agencies and individuals in the country made it easier to connect with the relief effort and provide them with data specialized to their needs within hours of the earthquake.

“We were able to provide satellite imagery by Monday morning after the event to some of our partners on the ground,” Runfola said. “It was phenomenally challenging because of the cloud cover issues. … Even to date, we still don’t have satellite imagery of the entire country.”

When the cloud cover moves out of the country, Runfola said it will be easier to map the devastation in the rural areas.

William & Mary held its last day of classes May 1, and Napier said it was unlikely AidData would organize any more crowdsourcing parties, as students were focused on final exams and commencement. The effort to crowdsource maps continues, however.

OpenStreetMaps and Tomnod are available online and are open to the public. Anyone with access to a computer with an internet connection can contribute to the mapping effort. Runfola said Tomnod was more accessible for people without previous training, and encouraged anyone interested to get involved.

“The data being produced by people, like you or anyone else on these websites like OSM and Tomnod, is being used,” he said. “This isn’t for fun. It’s not for kicks and giggles so that we feel better. It’s actually being used on the ground by people making decisions.”

Correction 05/05/2015 This article has been updated to reflect Dan Runfola’s position with AidData. He is the organization’s geospatial scientist, not a visiting research associate.

Related Coverage: