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Haiti: CrisisMapping the Earthquake

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Jeffrey Johnson (Open Solutions Group), John Crowley (Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and STAR-TIDES), Schuyler Erle (SimpleGeo)
Location: Ballroom III - VI

After the earthquake in Haiti, a community of crisis mappers started to prove what can be done when gifted minds channel their energies into a collective effort. Often working across increasingly artificial boundaries of sector, organization, and country -and sometimes bending or breaking “The Rules” - the community learned new lessons about how large scale efforts interact with the legalities of the commercial and governmental world. At the same time, people working in the places called “black” figured out ways to make imagery available which has never been on the public Internet. What lessons should we draw from Haiti? How did it differ from earlier disasters? What can our government learn about how to change its processes, and what can the Where 2.0 community learn about interacting with government? This session will highlight the efforts of many individuals and will testify to the lessons derived from their efforts.

Jeffrey Johnson

Open Solutions Group

Jeffrey Johnson is a web developer who is passionate about geospatial applications of web technology.

Photo of John Crowley

John Crowley

Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and STAR-TIDES

John coordinates a community of developers who build solutions for big problems in humanitarian assistance and disaster response operations. One of those issues is how to create a bridge between governments, NGOs, and stressed populations using crowdsourcing and other forms of collective intelligence.

Supporting the STAR-TIDES initiative at the National Defense University, he led a tiger team to connect crowdsourcing communities with the U.S. Southern Command’s emergency operations centre during the Haiti response. Between earthquakes, John coordinates the “Camp Roberts” RELIEF experiments through the Naval Postgraduate School—a program that gathers participants from responder communities and challenges them to swarm around shared problems. Through the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, John is expanding an existing program in crisis mapping to include the theory and practice around collective intelligence for response operations.

John holds an MPA from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, where he was the Robert C. Seamans Fellow in Science, Technology, and Public Policy. He also holds masters and bachelors degrees in intellectual history and music from Boston University. He tweets at @jcrowley.

Photo of Schuyler Erle

Schuyler Erle


Schuyler Erle has been a Free Software developer and evangelist for over a dozen years. He was a co-author of ‘Mapping Hacks’ and ‘Google Maps Hacks’. Schuyler was also a co-founder of the OpenLayers and TileCache projects, and is a charter member of the OSGeo Foundation. Schuyler currently resides in San Francisco, where he designs and builds new and exotic geospatial technology at SimpleGeo.

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04/06/2010 10:16am PDT

Lorant, I am all for giving credit, and Jeff, Schuyler and I each wanted to make sure that the hard work of so many received as much kudos as time allowed during our presentation.

I also want to honor the work of those who have fought to make changes to the systems that caused problems during the tsunami.

Having spoken this morning with UN friends who were running the operation in Banda Aceh, they asked me to make sure that we all clearly distinguish when imagery is made available to those who are providing reachback support in a major city and when it is in the hands of the decision makers in the field. Yes, there may have been maps on day 2 or 3 at UNOSAT in Switzerland, but these were not known to fielded staff in Banda Aceh, who were planning routes over downed bridges or looking for where people had recongregated in camps. Nor (at the time) were these maps part of a regular distribution process.

That situation is now improved, but back in January 2005, as late as the end of week 2, my friends were still fighting to get useful imagery post-tsunami. They made specific requests for bathymetry of the harbor, downed bridges, and a pre-post comparison of night-time infrared of the population centers (so that they could get a very rough estimate of where people were congregating). They got the first item, but never received the last two. The bathymetric imagery did not arrive until week 3, after a long and tortuous release process from the USG over a “for official use only, no-foreigners” classification prevented its release to the UN. And even then, it arrived on 60 CDs as dumb JPEGS in Powerpoint, exported from Falconview, requiring UN field staff to spend lots of time processing them.

I would make a very different comment about the 20 hrs v 26 hrs. The staff at UNOSAT did amazing work on Haiti, and should be credited for it (Einar, Chris, Lorant, and team: thank you). That said, the open volunteer technical community does not have a seat at the Space Charter, nor until Haiti would it have had credibility to ask for such early access to imagery under this international agreement. While members of the Charter may have received imagery in 20 hours, OpenStreetMap and CrisisMappers did not get access to any open-licensed imagery until the Google/GeoEye blog post/ftp site went online 26 hours after the quake (and here, let me send kudos to GeoEye and Google, and to the other imagery providers who soon followed, for making the imagery available under an open license (attribution)).

Imagery is not useful for crowdsourcing until the crowd can access it, and we’ll need to do some further work to build support for releasing imagery at the earliest time to OpenStreetMap and the other communities which earn sufficient trust to establish that relationship. I hope we can work together to make that a reality before the next disaster. Thanks for your clarification, and looking forward to continuing the conversation with you.


Lorant Czaran
04/06/2010 6:25am PDT

Just some corrections to the speakers, as often we make statements that are not entirely accurate, and can risk to undervalue efforts made by others too… 2004 Tsunami imagery was available to UN much earlier than 3 weeks after the disaster, even many VHR scenes donated by Digital Globe and Space Imaging… Regarding the Haiti imagery availability, it was not 26 hours before the first image came, I believe we as UN-SPIDER as well as the International Charter Space and Major Disasters project manager got access to the China (BJ-1) VHR image the next morning, that is less than 20 hours after the quake. I can check, but just to note that such information must be well-verified before broadcasted… These presentations and videos can be retained as reference for many, and should be accurate to the last detail.

04/05/2010 6:34pm PDT

Inspiring work, great presentation.

Picture of Mark J. Levitt
04/01/2010 4:09pm PDT

+1, great work, great talk, great speakers!

Bruce Cuthbert
04/01/2010 12:40pm PDT

I only heard part of your presentation. What you and your team did in HAiti was amazing to create the maps and to save lives. Amazing!! Can you post a higher resolution copy of your presentation. It was very fuzzy.

Your story of the Haiti maps needs to be on Ted.com Incredible