How to Save the World in 2015 with GIS

As the year come to a close, I like to reflect on how the next year can be even better. And one thing I always think of is how I can serve humanity to make the world a better place.

Did you know that there is a tangible, remote way to help in a humanitarian effort? And it involves GIS?

Let me introduce you to the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (or HOT), which I had a chance to hear about at the most recent Maptime Madison event in a presentation by Ethan Nelson and Carl Sack.

First of all, if you haven’t heard of OpenStreetMap (or OSM), it’s known as the Wikipedia of web maps. Or as OSM says on their about page, “OpenStreetMap is built by a community of mappers that contribute and maintain data about roads, trails, cafés, railway stations, and much more, all over the world.” After signing up for a free account, you can edit this collaborative worldwide map, and your contributions show up right away.

It’s very simple to do, and for me, extremely satisfying to be able to fix roads in my areas, update the names of the new businesses in my neighborhood, or suggest a great bike route that I discovered through trial and effort.

But OpenStreetMap can also be used as a tool to gather geographic data in areas where it’s really needed, like in a disaster zone.

The idea is simple: often in crisis areas, there isn’t a lot of existing mapping (you are sometimes lucky if you get major roads), and it’s hard for first responders to know where everything is. HOT organizes people to get that mapping done, working both remotely and physically in countries to assist.

Remotely, people can use aerial imagery to trace roads, parks, and buildings, and then locals and those on the ground can come in and add their knowledge, such as “that building is the hospital”.

Remember the devastating earthquake that happened in Haiti in January 2010? Just a few hours after, the OSM community began assisting by tracing roads from existing aerial imagery. As the HOT website states, “Within the first month over 600 people added information to OpenStreetMap in Haiti. It became the default basemap for responding organizations such as Search and Rescue teams, Humanitarian mapping NGOs like MapAction and iMMAP, the United Nations and the World Bank.” In March, HOT traveled to train locals and humanitarian contributors on how to use OpenStreetMap.

These images, courtesy of the OSM Blog, show Port-au-Prince, Haiti before the January 12th earthquake, and just two days after on January 14th.



HOT also organizes pre-disaster mapping so that communities in high risk areas can be better prepared.

Recently, OSM contributors have helped with the Ebola epidemic in west Africa, and are currently working on mapping for a cholera outbreak in South Sudan’s capital city, Juba.

So how can you actually help? You can start by:

  1. Learning OSM
  2. Signing up for the HOT mailing list to hear about where help is needed.
  3. Taking on a task through the Tasking Manager at According to HOT, the Tasking Manager “divides geographic regions into small squares, to present you with a nice manageable area to work on, and instructions on what to map. This is a great way to get started if you aren’t sure what needs to be done.”

And of course, there’s a lot more to read about at the HOT website to get involved.

There! Now you know how you can make the world a better place, even just an hour at a time, from your desk.