Tools for resilience practice: Crisis mapping | Global Resilience Institute

Crisis-Mapping technology uses data, reports, and other forms of information about individual locations and events to map them in real time. This information allows first responders and aid groups to identify people that need evacuations or resources and distribute those resources at locations to maximize their  impact. Early examples of this include the Ushaidi platform that was used to create a live crisis map in the aftermath of 2010 Haitian earthquake, the 2011 Fukushima Earthquake, and Hurricane Sandy in 2012. These early platforms were often limited by the amount of information they could quickly process through human analysis, and became overwhelmed by social media data. During the Fukushima Earthquake there were over 300,000 tweets per minute and Hurricane Sandy caused over 20 million related tweets. This large amount data forced these platforms to begin using algorithms identify and categorize tweets, and to draw on the resources of larger organizations. Even with some of these early limitations, the Department of Homeland Security recognized the potential value of these systems during five different crises in their 2013 report “Innovative Uses of Social Media in Emergency Management.”

Terrain map with green and brown to indicate terrain. Blue lines represent earthquake area, and red lines indiciate epicenter
NASA Damage Proxy map of Italian Earthquakes to aid in disaster response and recovery (NASA)

The disaster mapping effort has been picked up by large organizations such as Facebook’s “Data for Good” Division that launched a Disaster Maps program. Disaster Maps are generated by time-stamped geographic coordinates of individuals moving, allowing first responders and other aid groups to visualize human movement in real time through population heat maps. This program requires that Facebook app users have phones with location settings turned on; the app aggregates anonymous data hourly. Disaster Maps have been used in over 100 crises with examples including the Southern California Wildfires where it was used to help distribute over 400,000 respiration masks and Hurricane Maria, where aid groups used it to identify where people were likely to be congregating so that resources could be efficiently delivered to them.

Nepal’s Open Cities Kathmandu Project, which occurred between 2012 and 2013 with the help of 1,500 people on the OpenStreetMap platform successfully mapped and verified a variety of information on over 130,000 buildings, road networks, and other important buildings. This information later became crucial during the aftermath of two earthquakes that struck near Kathmandu in 2015, where it was used by the military and relief organizations to plan relief efforts. They also received support from “digital humanitarians” who used high-resolution satellite images to identify navigable routes, which were then used by the UN, Army, and Red Cross. This case highlights the importance of mapping in developing nations, where map information is often missing, outdated, or behind a paywall resulting in “societies without knowledge of village names, governments without access to their assets, and confusion as to where to provide aid.” This example also demonstrates that continual investment in these tools by governments and aid organizations is critical to being resilient.


Sources and Further Reading:

  1. Facebook’s Disaster Maps Help Rescuers Know Where They’re Needed Most – Fast Company
  2. Mapping techniques to ‘leave no one behind’ – SciDevNet
  3. Crisis Maps: Harnessing the Power of Big Data to Deliver Humanitarian Assistance – Forbes
  4. Innovative Uses of Social Media in Emergency Management – Department of Homeland Security
  5. Open Cities Kathmandu Project: Mapping local communities to reduce disaster risk – Reliefweb
  6. Facebook Disaster Maps: Methodology – Facebook Research
  7. Facebook’s new disaster maps aim to improve how organizations respond to crises – The Verge
  8. How ‘Crisis Mapping’ Is Shaping Disaster Relief in Nepal – National Geographic
  9. When Disaster Strikes, He Creates A ‘Crisis Map’ That Helps Save Lives – NPR