How Crowdsourced Mapping is Supporting Relief Efforts in Nepal

Sangeeta Deogawanka


When Nepal was hit by an earthquake of a icagnitude 7.8 on 25 April 2015, it was a disaster, unprecedented in intensity and damage. The epicenter lay 48 mi NW of Kathmandu, and most parts of Nepal witnessed massive destruction. The earthquake was followed by a series of aftershocks continuing up to the tenth day of magnitude > 4.

The Nepal earthquake brings to the mind, the 6.3 magnitude Christchurch earthquake of 22 February 2011, when Ushahidi’s Christchurch Recovery Map was launched in less than 24 hours. The crowdsourced initiative had begun with mapping locations of people trapped under debris embedding information via tweets, texts and emails. It then became a milestone in crowdsourced mapping with dissemination of geo-tagged information (what bridges are open, water distribution centers, road closures, and much more) for humanitarian response.

Four years later as the world saw the worst ever Himalayan disaster, maps from the USGS Earthquake and ShakeMap displayed continuously updated data of the earthquake and the series of aftershocks > 5 in continuum. Feeds from geo-tagged social media data (tweets, YouTube, Instagram, Webcams) were featured presenting real-time effects of the earthquake.

This time around, the worldwide geospatial and humanitarian community came to action within hours. Even as DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-3 satellite began its journey of capturing images of the region; volunteers, geospatial professionals and humanitarians came together to support mapping and relief efforts at Nepal.

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Crowdsourced Crisis Mapping for Nepal

OpenStreetMap (OSM) using maps from Bing to overlay crowdsourced data, sprung to action through its OSM 2015 Nepal earthquake contributions page. However, the situation posed several challenges. The region was rugged and mountainous, roads had gone missing, avalanches had altered the terrain and local infrastructure had come to a standstill. Contributors from around the world pitched in to trace roads, residential areas and buildings. As the details came to the fore, the area was spilt grid-wise, validated by experienced mappers, using established checks in place. The OSM tasking manager used a sophisticated system for validating volunteered contributions, identifying places that needed urgent attention or connecting the missing links.

From StandBy Task Force, the Micromapping platform maps out finer details relating to the Nepal Earthquake with the Image Crisis map and Tweet Crisis map.

Tweet Crisis Map – Nepal Earthquake (9th May 2015)
Tweet Crisis Map – Nepal Earthquake (9th May 2015) from StandBy Task Force

CrisisMappers from all over the world came together leveraging mobile & web-based applications, participatory maps & crowdsourced data, satellite and aerial imagery – to extract meaning from the voluminous real-time data inputs.

The UAV Humanitarian Network was activated within 4 hours. A massive volunteer enrollment drive from digital humanitarians and aviator communities added a new dimension to crowdsourced intelligence in times of disaster response.

An aerial image of Nepal earthquake zone, from volunteered drone user (UAViators)
An aerial image of Nepal earthquake zone, from volunteered drone user (UAViators)

Digital Globe activated its Tomnod app, a crowdsourcing platform for digitally connected volunteers with high resolution images from its WorldView-3. The crowdsourcing platform supported response teams by mapping damage – tagging damaged buildings, roads, and areas of major relief operations.

The Digital Globe Blog
The Digital Globe Blog
Tomnod- Earthquake in Nepal
Tomnod- Earthquake in Nepal

 Crowdsourced Crisis Support

Two local projects based at Kathmandu, the SERVIR – Himalaya initiative and the Kathmandu Living Labs responded with data from ground zero. The mapping, rescue and response operations could not have been possible without the support of the KLL mapping community, in place for a couple of years. A crowdsourced map made sense of tweets, texts and imagery, giving shape to the almost real-time detailed KLL Crisis Map of Nepal.

Working in collaboration with OSM and Ushahidi, the KLL team comprising of a handful of mappers, devised a dynamic multi-layered platform that could best be termed as crowdsourced location intelligence. The functionalities listed pleas for help, reports of missing people, customized alerts in your inbox or phone, access to datasets, and much more. The KLL map kept updating to incorporate dynamic needs of first responders, rescue and relief organizations, the Nepal Army, and citizens looking for information and support.

KLL Crisis Response Map – Nepal earthquake (medical assistance required, 9th May 2015)
KLL Crisis Response Map – Nepal earthquake (medical assistance required, 9th May 2015)

The Nepal earthquake has witnessed ground-breaking volunteered response to the crisis, with respect to mapping support, search and rescue operations and relief planning. Crowdsourcing moved beyond the historical mapping of disaster locations, buildings, roads and humanitarian crisis to embrace location intelligence and big data with trail-blazing insights.

Digital volunteers from around the world monitored social media, working together through online forums and chat rooms, translating tweets, updating Web documents and maps to fill critical information gaps. Information has been available in real time for supporting efforts of first responders, relief organizations, and governments of Nepal, China and India; even before they hit the ground.

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Sangeeta Deogawanka