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Mapping Ecuador From Afar, Burlington Volunteers Help Recovery Efforts

Taylor Dobbs
Noah Ahles, left, works at the University of Vermont's spatial analysis lab. In his spare time, he volunteers as part of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team.

In Ecuador, humanitarian workers are on the ground to people recover and rebuild after a magnitude 7.8 earthquake that hit the country on April 16.

Four days after the disaster struck, in a computer lab at the University of Vermont, another group of humanitarian volunteers assemble to do their part to help the relief efforts.

At the front of the computer lab is Noah Ahles. Sporting sweatpants, a T-shirt and some brightly colored flip-flops, Ahles lead a group of volunteers who showed up Wednesday evening to help map Ecuador.

“We're part of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team,” he says. “What we do is create road networks and building footprint data, so when humanitarian organizations go onto the ground into disaster areas, they actually have data to work with, so they have GPS, and they can get from one place to the next, and they can figure out where people are.”

The group uses satellite images of Ecuador, zooming way in so they could see individual buildings on the landscape. Before the volunteers do any work, the imagery they’re looking at is simply a picture taken by a satellite; even though it looks like a map, it's not helpful to anybody trying to plot their course or find small rural homes.

It's like using Google Earth with all the labels off – it looks nice, but it's not very useful.

“What we're going to be doing is tracing buildings,” Ahles explains. “And what that does is helps humanitarian aid organizations on the ground there to know, 'OK, here's our base camp. We need to figure out where all the rural villages are, and who needs what kind of supplies and how can we get those supplies to them as quickly as possible.’ So, we're essentially creating the road map for these humanitarian organizations.”

"We're essentially creating the road map for these humanitarian organizations." - Noah Ahles

The building outlines that the volunteers create on their computers go to a central database along with the other data from other volunteers all over the world. In the end, the goal is to not just have a satellite picture, but a bunch of locations plotted on a digital map.

That lets workers down in Ecuador focus on getting places, not trying to figure out where they are.

“Generally before people are put on the ground, they'll download this data for free and put it on a phone or a laptop or whatever they have access to, and they're good to go — they can use it for their operation,” Ahles says.

The fact that the data is free is a key part of the Humanitarian Open Street Map Team’s efforts. This isn't some well-organized corporation whipping up a high-demand product in short order; it's just volunteers.

One of the volunteers in the computer lap is Ellen Gawarkiewicz.

She's a grad student in UVM's field naturalist program, and she had two reasons to help out.

Credit Taylor Dobbs / VPR
In a computer lab at the University of Vermont on April 20, more than two dozen volunteers helped create mapping data for humanitarian workers in Ecuador.

“Well personally, actually, one of my best friends is from Ecuador. So I wanted to do something to help, but then I'm also in a GIS [Geographic Information Systems] class now and this is actually covering part of our homework assignment.”

Gawarkiewicz said that even though she’s in a GIS class, that’s not why she’s able to do the volunteer work. It’s a relatively simple process, and some of the volunteers had never done this before hearing Ahles give a 10-minute demonstration.

By the end of the evening, 28 volunteers in the UVM lab had marked hundreds if not thousands of buildings on the digital map of Ecuador.

Mapping events like the one Ahles put together happen in Burlington occasionally when there’s a major disaster, but volunteers don’t need access to a high-end computer lab to help out.

The Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team is international, and all it takes to participate is a computer with an Internet connection.

Ahles says there have been mapping efforts like this after quite a few disasters in recent years.

“Crowdsourcing to create digital maps pretty much began right after the earthquake in Haiti in 2010. So that was the very first large activation — that's what we call it when we involve hundreds, even thousands of people, to create these digital maps.”

And it's come a long way. In just 10 days after the earthquake, Ahles says volunteers worldwide have mapped 174,000 buildings in Ecuador and more than 13,000 roads.

Taylor was VPR's digital reporter from 2013 until 2017. After growing up in Vermont, he graduated with at BA in Journalism from Northeastern University in 2013.
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