University of Vermont

University Communications

Humanitarian Mapmaking

From Nepalese earthquakes to Hurricane Harvey, students help make the maps

Students in Humanitarian Mapping Club
(Photos: Josh Brown)

In the wake of disasters around the world, Noah Ahles ’14 and Nina Loutchko ’20 like to throw a party. So, last week, when Hurricane Harvey roared through coastal Texas, they did it again. “There’s chips and salsa and Oreos,” Ahles calls out cheerfully, over some soft music, to a group of about twenty UVM students and others who have gathered in a computer lab in the Aiken Building on campus.

But this party is no joke. It’s a mapping party—with a deadly serious aim to help first-responders, disaster planners—and anyone else in the region who needs an accurate map of what the storm has done on the ground. “We’re going to be working tonight in Houston to help them get back up on their feet,” Ahles says.

The students are volunteering their evening for the UVM Humanitarian Mapping Club—and it seems a bit like a video-game competition as they focus intensely at computers, drawing magenta squares on satellite maps. Each box goes around a building and then is classified—“tonight we’re mostly just looking at houses,” Ahles says—joining their work to a global effort called OpenStreetMap that include teams of engineers, GIS professionals, humanitarians, and other groups of college students around the world.

 Emily Kornfien and Noah Ales

“This is a just a picture, a satellite image,” says Emily Kornfien ‘19 (above), a transfer student who’s new to the club. She points to her screen at what looks like a curving cul-de-sac of houses and swimming pools. “The computer doesn’t know anything is there. That's why these lines are being added: you put in the lines, for a road or school or whatever, and then you name it.”

The UVM club is part of an organization called YouthMappers with 74 chapters in 24 countries. “We’re exchanging emails with universities in Kenya, South Africa, and India,” says Loutchko, who joined the effort last year and now serves as president. “We’re collectively trying to get young people involved in mapping and humanitarian work.”

Noah Ahles (above left)—who graduated from UVM in 2014 and is now on staff at UVM’s Spatial Analysis Lab—describes OpenStreetMap as the Wikipedia of maps. “Anybody can edit, anybody can download, and anybody can use it for free,” he says. “It’s powerful because it takes the red tape away from organizations that need to do damage assessment, or disaster recovery, or any situation where they need open-source data immediately."

Humanitarian Mapping students

The global effort began in 2010 following a terrible earthquake in Haiti. “We started at UVM in October 2014 during the Ebola outbreak,” Ahles explains. “Doctors Without Borders requested maps to be able to plan out exactly how to get from one village to another in Sierra Leone. They needed all the roads to be digitized.” So he began to volunteer.

“We take it for granted that we’re able to use our phones to find every single turn to reach any address in New York City,” he says. “That’s all vector information. That's lines. That's geographic information that a lot of developing countries don't have.”

And some places in the U.S. too—including Houston—don’t have complete datasets of where buildings and roads are that would allow a computer to create before-and-after images of flood-damaged areas. “Let's find neighborhoods that are underwater,” Ahles tells the group, showing them striking images, on a projector at the front of the room, of submerged houses where Harvey dumped feet of water. “We’re using both pre-storm and post-storm imagery,” Ahles explains, to help aid groups and others “understand how many buildings are within the area of flooding.”

Two students get up from their workstations and come to the front of the room. “We’ve earned a cookie,” one says, with a smile. “It can seem intimidating—all this geospatial technology,” says Loutchko, “but it’s really easy and fun. We listen to music and put in to a really great cause.”

By the end of the evening, twenty-four people have mapped 3,960 buildings in Houston. Three days later, Ahles posts another invite to the club’s Facebook page: “I’ll be doing some mapping,” on Saturday, he writes, “to help provide building footprints in preparation for Irma in Florida/Carribean Islands. Feel free to stop by.”