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Mapping Disasters Before They Happen

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Open-source technology is putting vulnerable communities on the map for the first time – and it could save lives.

On a recent visit to Mixco, Guatemala, the Pan American Development Foundation (PADF) and students from George Washington University (GWU) mapped communities using nothing more than open-source platforms and the GPS in their smartphones.

The work is part of a global initiative called Missing Maps, which aims to improve disaster preparation and the delivery of humanitarian assistance by mapping the world’s most vulnerable areas.

Maps in developing nations are often incomplete and inadequate. But this mapping strategy, implemented widely in Nepal after the deadly 2015 earthquake, adds a missing layer of detailed spatial information that was previously unavailable to local planners, relief workers and community members.

Located outside Guatemala City, the community of Mixco is marked by steep hills that put residents in harm’s way during floods or landslides. Poorly constructed homes perched on hillsides are particularly vulnerable.

The project uses satellite and drone imagery to map the locations of buildings, places that Google maps or satellite images can’t capture. During three collaborative “mapathon” events, Rafael Landívar University students in Guatemala and GWU students traced buildings and roads onto an open-source mapping platform called Open Street Map. In one joint event, participants in Washington D.C. and Guatemala City simultaneously mapped every single structure in the community of Ciudad Satélite.

PADF and GWU also conducted a field survey. Teams surveyed 105 buildings on Ciudad Satélite’s steep hills, going door to door with questions like “does your community have a local disaster committee?” and “how do you get your news?”

The survey was designed to measure a household’s risk factors and identify their capacity to mitigate them. Risks include exposure to natural disasters as well as other factors like food insecurity and poverty. The answers were paired with observations about each dwelling, like construction materials and its relative hillside position. Each team tagged that data with GPS information to form a detailed picture of the community. The results revealed numerous risk factors. Mosquitoes, for example, were more problematic toward the bottom of the hill, closer to a water source.

This project was part of PADF’s greater effort to reduce disaster risk in the region, a project funded by Taiwan that identifies communities vulnerable to natural hazards like floods and landslides and works with them to prepare for and respond.

Guatemala may especially benefit from this type of mapping, as it is one of the most vulnerable countries to natural disasters. Guatemala was shaken in October 2015, when a deadly landslide killed 280 people living in precarious hillside settlements. The event alarmed similar communities and put a spotlight on the need to prepare for and prevent natural disasters.

Local residents responded positively to the door-to-door survey. The project used a bottom-up approach, emphasizing community engagement. It challenged local residents to think about their environment and their participation in community planning, a vital aspect of disaster risk reduction.

But the project’s implications go beyond the community level. When completed on a large scale, these maps enable planners and relief workers to know who lives where, and gauge the terrain’s accessibility.

Ultimately, these maps are help communities prevent and mitigate disasters, providing information that can save lives.