Nepal Aid Workers Helped by Drones, Crowdsourcing

Shirley Wang et al in the Wall Street Journal: “….It is too early to gauge the exact impact of the technology in Nepal relief efforts, which have just begun amid chaos on the ground. Aid organizations have reported hospitals are overstretched, a shortage of capacity at Katmandu’s airport is crippling aid distribution and damaged roads and the mountainous country’s difficult terrain make reaching villages difficult.

Still, technology is playing an increasing role in the global response to humanitarian crises. Within hours of Saturday’s 7.8-magnitude temblor, U.S. giants such as Google Inc. and Facebook Inc. were offering their networks for use in verifying survivors and helping worried friends and relatives locate their loved ones.

Advances in online mapping—long used to calculate distances and plot driving routes—and the ability of camera-equipped drones are playing an increasingly important role in coordinating emergency responses at ground zero of any disaster.

A community of nonprofit groups uses satellite images, private images and open-source mapping technology to remap areas affected by the earthquake. They mark damaged buildings and roads so rescuers can identify the worst-hit areas and assess how accessible different areas are. The technology complements more traditional intelligence from aircraft.

Such crowdsourced real-time mapping technologies were first used in the 2010 Haiti earthquake, according to Chris Grundy, a professor in Geographical Information Systems at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. The technology “has been advancing a little bit every time [every situation where it is used] as we start to see what works,” said Prof. Grundy.

The American Red Cross supplied its relief team on the Wednesday night flight to Nepal from Washington, D.C. with 50 digital maps and an inch-thick pile of paper maps that help identify where the needs are. The charity has a mapping project with the British Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders and the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, a crowdsourced data-sharing group.

Almost a week after the Nepal earthquake, two more people have been pulled from the rubble in Katmandu by teams of international rescuers. But hope for finding more survivors is waning. Photo: Sean McLain/The Wall Street Journal.

Mapping efforts have grown substantially since Haiti, according to Dale Kunce, head of the geographic information systems team at the American Red Cross. In the two months after the Haiti temblor, 600 mapping contributors made 1.5 million edits, while in the first 48 hours after the Nepal earthquake, 2,000 mappers had already made three million edits, Mr. Kunce said.

Some 3,400 volunteers from around the world are now inspecting images of Nepal online to identify road networks and conditions, to assess the extent of damage and pinpoint open spaces where displaced persons tend to congregate, according to Nama Budhathoki, executive director of a nonprofit technology company called Katmandu Living Labs.

His group is operating from a cramped but largely undamaged meeting room in a central-Katmandu office building to help coordinate the global effort of various mapping organizations with the needs of agencies like Doctors Without Borders and the international Red Cross community.

In recent days the Nepal Red Cross and Nepalese army have requested and been supplied with updated maps of severely damaged districts, said Dr. Budhathoki….(More)”