Discussing GIS techniques after Typhoon Haiyan may seem callous, but it is necessary. The Philippines and other Pacific islands were savaged by forces beyond human control. Having happened before, it could occur again, and only better preparation can help prevent at least some of the loss and pain. Now is when the lessons are sharp, which is why GIS training and research must pay attention.
Geospatial information systems offer key tools to help rescue efforts. Only by looking at innovations and the results of existing practices can experts and officials make better use of the technology — and only then can organizations of all types make additional use of the techniques.
Mapping technology plays an obvious role in the aftermath of any disaster. Officials need to know where resources are most needed. Rescue workers have to find safe routes to channel aid. But every severe event raises issues no one had previously considered. That is why innovation is important, and a promising area is the combination of mapping, social media, and crowdsourcing. Large groups of volunteers, whether on the ground or thousands of miles away, can help collect and assess information that can be of critical importance to rescue and relief operations. One example is MicroMappers. Although social media are potentially rich in information, someone has to review, analyze, and categorize huge numbers of posts on Twitter or Facebook.
One way of doing this is though microtasking. Individuals go to a site or use an app to take on a bit of the work load. MicroMappers uses a network of volunteers who, in this situation, tagged Twitter messages and provided a first level of review for pictures from the area. The result was a live crisis map that changed in response to live data and which could provide a high level view over space and time.
Google offered a crowdsourced map that showed such features as hospitals, evacuation centers, police stations, areas in a state of emergency, and relief drop zone areas in significant degrees of detail.
The site Rappler asked people to report critical information, such as flooding, building damage, and needs for assistance. Individuals could also post requests for information about particular people who had not been in contact. The Red Cross has found such crowdsourced GIS systems to be critical.
Since Saturday, more than 400 volunteers have made nearly three quarters of a million additions to a free, online map of areas in and around the Philippines. Those additions reflect the land before the storm, but they will help Red Cross workers and volunteers make critical decisions after it about where to send food, water, and supplies.
There is too much information for even a large group of relief volunteers to process. But with help from social media and crowds, humanitarian responses have a much better chance of succeeding.