The devastating effects of Typhoon Haiyan—known as Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines— have sparked a worldwide humanitarian effort that is notable for the work of “digital volunteers” who are finding ways to help contribute to the humanitarian effort online by providing updated, publicly available, maps for responders like the American Red Cross and identify social media data that could be used by the UN for rapid situational awareness. One common way volunteers help is by tracing over online satellite imagery to create data about the location and shape of objects such as buildings, roads, and bridges. This data can, in turn, be used to perform different types of analysis such as finding the most efficient route between two points, or assessing infrastructure damage. Throughout the last year, USAID’s GeoCenter has worked closely with humanitarian organizations, universities, student groups, and volunteers to better understand and leverage this public engagement, sometimes called “crisis mapping”, in humanitarian response. Our investment in becoming part of the crisis mapping community is yielding some exciting results, including building capacity for online mapping projects that support the current humanitarian response in the Philippines.

This past fall, USAID’s GeoCenter, in the Office of Science and Technology, partnered with the World Bank’s Global Facility for Disaster Risk Reduction (GFDRR) to participate in the “Open Cities” project in Kathmandu, Nepal. The rapid rate of population growth in Kathmandu, coupled with sub-standard building construction in an active seismic zone, exposes Kathmandu to significant risk for disaster from Earthquakes. The creation of disaster plans and mitigation policies requires geographic data to answer questions like, “Where are the buildings the most susceptible to risk? Where is the greatest concentration of population? Where are the resources that can be used to respond in a disaster?” To provide these data, GFDRR has funded Kathmandu Living Labs, a Nepali organization, which is mapping infrastructure, conducting field-surveys, and publishing these data via an open platform, online. The project has already created the first comprehensive map of schools in the Kathmandu valley and provided extensive maps of health facilities. To help with the effort, in November 2013, the GeoCenter organized a mapping party in collaboration with George Washington University (GWU) in Washington, DC, in which ninety students and faculty spent a Friday evening mapping more than fifteen thousand buildings in Kathmandu. This remote mapping assistance provided by students in the US allows Kathmandu Living Labs to focus more on important field surveys that, when combined with the map data, will provide an open dataset that can be used to model urban areas, analyze infrastructure, and plan for disaster response in the event of an earthquake. The map below highlights the contribution of GWU students: each yellow dot is a data point added during the mapping party to areas that needed to be mapped according to Kathmandu Living Labs.

Map of OpenStreetMap contributions by GWU students courtesy of Mapbox

The impact of our work with the Open Cities project continues to multiply. For example, the National Society for Earthquake Technology in Nepal has recently determined to share its own information, offering new data that will soon be available for public use on the Open Cities website. Just one week after the mapping party at GWU, Typhon Haiyan struck, and many of the students involved in Open Cities immediately offered their newly minted skills to the Red Cross in an effort to provide rapid geographic data to the Philippines. By working as part of this community, we are finding ways to support innovative solutions that we might not have imagined before. Open geographic data are now becoming a convening point for a wide range of stakeholders and the GeoCenter and USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance are evaluating ways to leverage this data for response planning and programmatic decision-making [PDF, 4mb].

Large screen displays show live edits to OpenStreetMap as George Washington University geography students, USAID, and the World Bank map Kathmandu by tracing satellite imagery using online tools for the Open Cities project on November 1, 2013. Click to view photo set on Flickr. Credit: Chad Blevins

Large screen displays show live edits to OpenStreetMap as George Washington University geography students, USAID, and the World Bank map Kathmandu by tracing satellite imagery using online tools for the Open Cities project on November 1, 2013. View more photos from the event on our Flickr site.
Credit: Chad Blevins

Our partnerships with the crisis mapping community and our colleagues in the U.S. Government make this innovation possible: we could not do it on our own. The GWU Department of Geography was a key partner in organizing the Kathmandu mapping party with their students and our colleagues at MapBox provided generous technical support. The faculty at GWU are also creating a curriculum for teaching open-source tools like OpenStreetMap that will be available to anyone to replicate the process. The Department of State’s Humanitarian Information Unit made valuable high-resolution satellite imagery available in OpenStreetMap for both the Open Cities project and to the entire community of crisis mappers for response to Haiyan. Their “Imagery to the Crowd” allows digital volunteers to trace satellite imagery and create valuable data about roads, buildings, and other physical features that can be used to support humanitarian and development projects.

Moving forward, USAID and the GeoCenter look forward to being a part of the crisis mapping community. It is clear that many amazing volunteers, entrepreneurs, and students around the world are becoming part of a growing community with important capacity and innovative ideas. Together, we can meet the challenges of the future.

For more information on USAID’s response to Typhoon Haiyan, please visit

For more information about the Open Cities Project, please visit