Johns Hopkins students and staff map Puerto Rico remotely to get aid to victims of Hurricane Maria

Like other Puerto Ricans far from home, Alanna Farrell Colon, a Johns Hopkins University sophomore, felt helpless when Hurricane Maria hit the island.

But a “mapathon” held Thursday on campus allowed the 19-year-old to help aid workers navigate the battered island.

The biomedical student joined a global effort to map buildings, roads and other infrastructure on Puerto Rico, to help on-the-ground relief groups deliver supplies and begin recovery efforts. Using satellite images, volunteer groups have been filling in missing details on existing maps that, particularly in more remote areas, may have had only the barest of outlines, organizers said.

For Farrell Colon, it was particularly meaningful: She was able to zoom in on an image of Carolina, a municipality east of the capital San Juan, and find the warehouse her mother owns as part of a pool-supply business. She already knew the warehouse was not damaged and her family is safe.

“No one had marked it out yet,” she beamed after she clicked on her laptop, uploading the traced outline of the building to the crowd-sourced site, OpenStreetMap.

Dale Kunce, who heads the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, or HOT, a nonprofit that uses the site to map countries after a disaster, said as many as 6,000 people have joined the effort to map countries struck by Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

While anyone can go on the website to help, colleges like Hopkins have been particularly active in hosting group events to explain the process and even help get those unskilled in mapping to contribute to the effort.

“I think many of us want to contribute in any way that is helpful,” said Mara Rojeski Blake, data services manager at Hopkins’ Sheridan Libraries and Museums, who organized the event at Levering Hall on the Homewood campus.

She led a couple of dozen students, staff and alumni, all gazing intently at their laptops, through a quick tutorial. They created OpenStreetMap accounts, then went onto a list of tasks that HOT had compiled, each ranked by urgency. That led to maps of various parts of Puerto Rico that were further divided into grids. Participants clicked on grids that had yet to be mapped, which led them to satellite images that were taken before the hurricane.

The listed tasks called for mappers to mostly focus on buildings. Some were fairly easy to trace, urban neighborhoods with streets of what obviously were single-family homes. Other grids were more rural, with what looked to be a building or two, surrounded by fields or other undeveloped land. Still others showed larger structures that may have been apartment or office buildings. Some images were harder to scope out — trees blocked part of a structure, sometimes a massing could have been either a building or a shadow.

Once they outlined a building and saved it, the data went to more experienced users who have been trained on verifying the information, sometimes by comparing to other images or on-the-ground reports.

“As soon as you hit save, it immediately helps us,” Kunce, who also works as senior geospatial engineer for the American Red Cross, said in a telephone interview.

Based in Washington, Kunce recently returned from a trip to Puerto Rico, where field workers download the latest data from the mapathons every night. Some of the more remote regions of Puerto Rico were not as well-mapped as more developed parts of the world, he said, and the details volunteers are providing now will help in long-term rebuilding efforts.

Kunce said that more developed parts of the world tend to have more developed maps as well, as businesses find it lucrative to provide ways to find the nearest Starbucks, for example.

“In a lot of other areas, you don’t have the return of investment,” he said.

That is where efforts such as Thursday’s event come in, filling in details that otherwise would not make it onto a usable map.

“I like the whole crowd-sourcing idea,” said Jim Gillispie, a GIS librarian at Hopkins. “What’s nice is it seems like anyone can help. This allows you a way to contribute that you didn’t have before.”

He was working on what looked to be a residential area on the southern edge of Puerto Rico east of Ponce, mapping houses and a baseball diamond.

For Kyra Meko, 20, a student with admittedly no experience or skills in computerized mapping, the event was a way to make up for what she saw as a disparity in assistance to recent hurricane victims.

“I see this as an environmental justice issue, with climate change intensifying storms, and certain areas getting more attention,” Meko said. “I don’t see as much aid going to Puerto Rico as Houston.”

The Texas city was struck hard by Hurricane Harvey.

Kunce said HOT has never been in the position it is in now, mapping as many overlapping disasters, from the two Mexican earthquakes to the flooding in Bangladesh, India and Nepal to the multiple hurricanes that have struck the Caribbean.

In addition to responding to disasters, the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team also has continuing projects, such as one to track the spread of malaria, which assists public health groups in determining where to spray for mosquitoes.

Several Hopkins students from Puerto Rico were thrilled to help beyond the bake sale they previously hosted, raising $3,000 for relief efforts.

“There’s nothing you can do,” Elmer Zapata, 25, a doctoral student, said of his family in Puerto Rico. “You can pack up supplies for them, but there was no USPS service until two days ago.”

“If I can just help people on the island, that’s all I need,” said Hani Al-Jabi-Lopez, 20, a Syrian-Puerto Rican who was born on the island but moved as a child to Buffalo, N.Y. “I just wanted to help out in any way I can.’

While doctoral student Nikki DeLuca, 25, doesn’t have a personal connection to Puerto Rico, she too was drawn to the event.

“It’s a good way for us to be at Hopkins but still help,” DeLuca said. "I think everyone has a little piece, and putting it all together, we covered the area. I didn’t realize there was something we could do from home.”

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