In the aftermath of the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck Nepal on April 25, some of the hardest-hit areas were remote mountain villages, often inaccessible by roads. It was difficult for relief workers to know the extent of damage and where they were needed most urgently.
A University of Illinois alumnus, Nama Budhathoki, is using open source mapping to help put relief workers in the areas they are needed most.
Budhathoki – who studied the use of open mapping for his doctoral studies and received a Ph.D from the U. of I. in urban and regional planning in 2011 – is executive director of Kathmandu Living Labs. While studying at the U. of I., he saw how much open source mapping was used following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
"Nepal sits in one of the most risky zones for earthquakes and other disasters. In Haiti they made (the map) after – I wanted to make the map before the earthquake," Budhathoki told the BBC.
He started Kathmandu Living Labs, a nonprofit technology company, in 2013 to map Nepal, anticipating that such a map could prove vital in the case of a natural disaster such as an earthquake. The organization created a detailed map of roads, hospitals, schools and other buildings in Kathmandu Valley.
Within a day of the April 25 earthquake, Kathmandu Living Labs set up a situation room and began using a crowdmapping platform to collect reports of damage and requests for help. Budhathoki is blogging about the work on his organization’s website, kathmandulivinglabs.org, and the mapping efforts have been reported in The New York Times, Wired magazine, the Nepali Times and the BBC.
Kathmandu Living Labs receives daily updates from the Nepal Army, and it has released a set of printable maps, updated regularly, for aid workers. The work has greatly expanded the area of Nepal that has been mapped.
The organization used pre-disaster images as the basis for its maps, then added satellite images of the damaged areas as they became available, as well as reports from those on the ground in Nepal. More than 4,000 people around the world have contributed to the mapping efforts through OpenStreetMap, a crowd-sourced mapping project called the Wikipedia of mapping.
Budhathoki is a member of the board of directors of Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, which connects OpenStreetMap data with humanitarian workers. Kathmandu Living Labs has been working with that organization and many others. It established a website, quakemap.org, as a clearinghouse for aid workers of information about help needed in various locations and the responses to the requests. It includes a database of relief organizations, the type of aid they are providing and where.
Relief workers have requested information such as the location of open areas for helicopter landings, potential sources of drinking water and maps indicating paths for mule transport in areas where roads are inaccessible.
The mapping and the sharing of requests for help from throughout the damaged areas has helped aid workers be better prepared to help the victims, Budhathoki said.
Immediately after the earthquake, "They took rice, for example. When they got there, they realized that's not what the people there needed, they need tents,” he told the BBC. "The problem was in the information. What do people need and what relief can be offered?
"At the end of the day we know our reports help rescue operators to save lives, or help people in some way,” Budhathoki said. “That is such a satisfying experience.”