Students and staff from AidData and the College of William & Mary participating in a Crisis Mapping event in April, 2015. / Hannah Dempsey, AidData

A massive 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Nepal just as I was finalizing plans to spend the summer working there.

At the time, I was a student at the College of William & Mary and a Summer Fellow with the AidData Center for Development Policy, a research and innovation lab that helps the development community improve transparency by mapping where funds and efforts flow. The geospatial data tools we create help universities, think tanks and civil society organizations make better decisions about aid allocation, coordination and evaluation.

In the midst of planning for my trip to Nepal, the earthquake struck, leaving 9,000 people dead, entire villages flattened and hundreds of thousands homeless. After receiving news that our friends and colleagues were safe, my classmates and I looked for a way to help Nepal from our campus in Virginia.

Our solution? Crisis mapping from our laptops.

As student researchers at AidData, our day-to-day focus is tracking, analyzing and mapping development finance data. With specialized data skills, we were ready and equipped to rapidly collect, process and send spacial data to the people in Nepal who needed it. We partnered with USAID and other organizations to identify areas of Nepal in need of assistance, and mapped this information so that responders, community members and others could take action.

Within 48 hours of the earthquake, my student team started Tweeting to recruit other students to data mapping trainings on our campus.

Disaster mappers needed

More than 50 students responded to our call to action. We mobilized volunteers quickly, teaching them how to use the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) platform to create and edit online maps of humanitarian and natural disasters — Nepal’s earthquake, in this case.

Volunteers meticulously combed through aerial images of the Nepali landscape for buildings, roads and residential areas damaged by the earthquake. Along with thousands of other mappers around the globe, we also examined satellite images to pinpoint areas of destruction outside of Kathmandu and provide data on where shelters were. Over the next five months, volunteers at William & Mary provided more than 111,000 updates to the map.

Satellite maps created through the AidData Nepal Info Portal played an important role in recovery efforts in Nepal. / AidData’s Nepal Info Portal

One challenge we faced was how to make all of our data, along with geo-referenced news reports and YouTube videos of the damage, accessible to policymakers and first responders. Save the Children and USAID helped us get our data where it was needed, informing the efforts of and keeping them out of harm during search and rescue operations.

Even though the immediate needs of the earthquake have subsided, our work continues. Inspired by the mapping fervor following the Nepal disaster, students began organizing open-source ”mapathons” and even created an OpenStreetMap club to further develop their skills so that they will be ready to mobilize the next time the call for disaster assistance goes out.

I was amazed by how quickly and easily students could plug into global efforts, make tangible differences and help the lives of strangers halfway across the globe.

This experience spurred my passion for using data to positively impact global development and I look forward to doing even more to uplift humanity through this type of work in the future.


Hannah Dempsey is a Research Assistant with AidData and a Senior at the College of William & Mary, one of eight university-based Development Labs that is a part of the U.S. Global Development Lab’s Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN).

The AidData Center for Development Policy is one of eight USAID Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN) university-based Development Labs. As part of the U.S. Global Development Lab, HESN is the Lab’s flagship program to engage universities in global development using science, technology and innovation-focused approaches. AidData, based at the College of William & Mary, is made up of full-time staff as well as a cohort of student research assistants that collectively work to improve development outcomes by making development finance data more accessible and actionable.