With the March 2011 Tōhoku tsunami still fresh on people's minds and events like the recent Talas Typhoon reminding us that disasters are a constant threat, we know that disaster response must be an ongoing, structural concern. The Japanese community hosting the conference did a great job highlighting how crisis mapping needs to be central in disaster response efforts -- and how a free tool like OpenStreetMap can make a big difference.
OpenStreetMap delivers valuable open baseline geodata that can play a critical role in aiding disaster response. Additionally, when disaster strikes, OpenStreetMap contributors, driven by a strong culture of volunteerism, jump in and provide important manpower, yielding results like the massive improvement in geodata quality immediately after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
Examples of crisis mapping in the Japanese community illustrate how these successful first steps in crisis mapping are replicated across continents and cultures, adjusted to local needs, and evolved further.
DISASTER RESPONSE PLANNING
The most promising use of OpenStreetMap for crisis response comes from Indonesia. Australian Aid, together with the World Bank's GFDRR team, the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team and the Indonesian Government, are building local capacity to gather critical geographical infrastructure data to mitigate disaster risk. While many disaster mapping initiatives aim to improve the general utility of OpenStreetMap data in disaster zones, Australian Aid's Kristy Van Putten is very explicit about the purpose of a better Indonesian OpenStreetMap: disaster response planning.
Specifically, the initiative provides the concrete analysis tools and know-how, along with improvements to the OpenStreetMap dataset. Data captured via OpenStreetMap can then be analyzed with InaSAFE, a Quantum GIS plugin that answers questions like "in the event of a flood, how many schools would be affected?" or "how many water pumps would be affected?"
This example neatly demonstrates the power of OpenStreetMap's availability as structured open data and not just tiled maps. But it is also a great case of relating an incident where OpenStreetMap plays a tightly coupled role in a larger risk reduction strategy.
We are all still learning. While promising, Indonesia's disaster risk reduction work with OpenStreetMap has yet to prove itself in a crisis situation. We need to move beyond showing rapid growth in data coverage and start to communicate clear strategies for using OpenStreetMap where it's needed most. Where it doesn't work, we need to be open and eager to find new approaches.
Join the conversation. This fall will see more intensive talk about OpenStreetMap and disaster work at the International Crisis Mappers Conference (starting October 11 in Washington, D.C.) and at the State of the Map US (starting October 13 in Portland, Ore.). You can find more on Humanitarian OpenStreetMap team's work in Indonesia in their report from July 2012.
Alex Barth is an open data expert with years of practice in developing and implementing open data strategies and solutions on behalf of multinational organizations like the United Nations and World Bank. At Development Seed, he leads our data team to raise the availability and quality of freely accessible open data.