OpenStreetMap for disaster response – raw notes from Harry Wood talk

Very raw, sometimes verbatim but doubtless flawed notes from Harry Wood‘s excellent talk at Open Data Institute in London. #odifridays

Many thanks to Harry for a great talk and to ODI for putting together these lunchtime lectures. The ODI have also published slides and audio from the talk.

“An introduction to OpenStreetMap, the UK born project to map the world as open data, and a look at how volunteer mappers helped with disaster response in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan, with Harry Wood . Harry is a developer at, and is on the board of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team.”

Note: this is un-checked, very raw notes that I typed while listening. There will be mistakes and confusions; my fault not Harry’s!

Typhoons …phillipines area hammered during typhoon season. The typhoons often meander off, don’t hit coast. But this one hit, and fast, … so a big storm surge. Fastest wind speeds on record ‘biggest storm ever’.

[shows video clip]

More than 6000 died. Role of mapping in disaster responses: food shelter etc; can donate money directly for giving food.  Info / logistics challenge re delivering aid. Lots of ‘where?’ questions. Where are people suffering most;? Where to deliver aid to? team locations etc. Huge value of maps for disaster response.

Q: who has edited OSM? A: lots of hands raised.

Maps … GIS / vector data will always be a bit complex, but we try to dumb it down. The data model is also v stripped down, just tagged nodes and ways. e.g. a pub is a node with amenity=pub. It’s also renderable map -> viewed as a map on, … but we play down that aspect a bit, since there are other map providers around e.g. Google.

But the maps are a important aspect of disaster response.

OSM editing -> appear on map can take ~ 10 mins.

This is quite a technical hit. There’s a rendering server here in London; aspect of providing a feedback loop (editing -> new map).  A shared commons for geo data. AID orgs get excited … coming together sharing same platform. OSM is very much about raw data too, not just the maps. So this is different to pure map providers, … entirely open access to the raw data.

In terms of the humanitarian response, … agencies can take the data unencumbered, use it offline. It is open data. there is an exciting open data story for OSM.

As humanitarian work, it can be a problem that we allow commercial re-use – [not all orgs welcome that]

Community + Raw vector data + simple editing + Updated map — these 4 elements make it very attractive to humanitarian work.

Haiti in 2010, collab came together very quickly, for the two worst-hit cities (port au Prince and …). This speed was v useful for aid orgs; those orgs were printing it out, in tents, response centres. People used it on the web too, Ushahidi too, ie they’re a bit more accurate due to these improvements.

“my favourite use: ” … a Garmin handheld GPS unit, … loaded with data from open ecosystem, used offline  quintessential use case of raw data from OSM but also life-saving. Since haiti, there have been other disasters. Not all of these so suited to OSM helping out – e.g. massive pakistan floods, … harder to map such a larger area. Couldn’t get imagery for that entire area.

To some extent there are pakistan maps already; less so for Haiti. Similarly re Japan, already were maps.

re Sendai tsunami, .. yes there were free maps; yes there were high quality official maps, … but could you get hold of recently updated freely avail high quality maps? so still some role there.

Since then, organizing more: Tasking Manager,

A common Q: ‘where to start mapping?’

Way of coordinating for a large area. Drop a grid, get people to acquire a square, … load into editor, ‘done’ when done. This workflow came into its own during Philippines. Sometimes in resp to an aid agency request, … or as we have imagery, … Visualizing changesets, .. bounding boxes slide, Philippines editing traffic [slide] brand new, made last night,  … got up to almost 300 users involved on 1 day. No of changes (philippines) ~ 40,000 edits.

Peak in interest corresponds in interest, corresponds to general interest [shows google trends], though shows a slightly longer attention span. Want the spike further over to the left,… the sooner the better, e.g. as aid agencies may be taking a snapshot of our data, …

Graph showing new users … ppl who appear to have registered during the time of the disaster response,  shows also ‘old timers’ getting engaged earlier, few days lag for the newer users.

We have a humanitarian mapping style, … not the default OSM view  we tweaked it slightly – e.g. to show a red outline around buildings appear to be damaged. Getting mappers to look at post-disaster imagery, e.g. buildings that have been swept away with water. More examples of data getting used: map posters popular with aid agencies; they fly out now with a cardboard roll full of osm posters. In particular red cross heavily involved.

In UK office down in Moorgate, used tasking manager there, contributing to OSM to improve the printouts they were getting. Ways to help:; comms, blogging, coordination, wiki, promo videos and tutorials, imagery warping / tiling / hosting;

software dev’t, use the open data; build tools to work with it, …

Gateway skill: learn to map!


A Quick demo.

  • Shows tasking manager UI from

  • colour coded squares either mapped, or mapped and validated by a 2nd reviewer

  • click to acquire a square, then to invoke OSM editor of choice e.g. JOSM

  • alternative – edit directly in website via js-based UI

  • we tend to teach new users the JOSM GUI

  • shows workflow of marking a road (nodes/ways) picking up from work in ‘someone else’s square’

Comment from a Nigel of mapaction v supportive, ‘used it all the time’. ‘last few emergencies, … this stuff is pervasive, if it wasn’t there we’d be really struggling’.

Comment from Andrew B… (british red cross) the volunteer aspect as well, … between us and mapaction, it’s the volunteers that make it happen, …

Q to audience, for Haiyan, lessons?

Andew points to row of British red cross mapping volunteers – ‘we’re coordinating w/ US red cross, federation, …  they’re dealing with those in the area; whereas Nigel is using it on the ground in this area that’s going out tomorrow. We were doing situational reports, who-what-where-when eg risk vs need vs capabilities, … understanding that kind of stuff. This gives us underlying map, to support all this.

Q re coordination. Nigel of mapaction “Maps are coordination glue”; Harry  “everything has a location aspect.”

Ed Parsons Q: “v interested  in task manager element … if you had the info before, that’s hugely valuable how successful ? how do you motivate ppl to map an area they’ve not thought about?

Harry: many people motivated by seeing it on the news, …in  a way a shame as better if happens ahead of time, … work on that under disaster risk reduction. e.g. in Indonesia we have extensive mapping work, as it lies on a fault line, risk assessment, … trying to get a map of every building, get people to draw around buildings . But there’s less enthusiasm for these things before they’re needed.

Harry: gratifying that tasking manager is software we’ve dev’t reasonably, that HOT as an org has matured as a community, we have etiquette ar ound using the tasking manager, fell into place naturally.

Ivan (doctors without borders): 2nds Nigel’s point  re lifesaving we have years, decades of health data. People telling us where ppl are from … To understand epidemic patterns … in haiti we couldn’t find src of the outbreaks (despite Snow/cholera analogy) … because we can’t get raw usable data that correlates to what people report as their place of origin and where they got sick. Wokring w/ OSM. Some success in Phillipines, … more challenge in Congo & other area. Aim to be able to correlate places reported from walk-in patients to a real world place, and get into forecasting and preventative medicine. Struggling to achieve in these situations what europe had 150 years ago.

Harry: importance of geocoding from names

Ivan: every person in the world has some description for where they live If it’s a streetname/number that’s easy; if its’ directions from a b-b tree that’s harder. But can make a start, ideally 1-200M, but kilometers better than nothing. We sit on piles of data that we can’t correlate to anything so far.

Biggest single impediment is access to imagery? get other providers to do as BIng…

Harry: the challenge for imagery providers is that it is worth money, which is why they put satellites or fly the planes, so can’t eat away at that too much. OFten you’ll see data made availaable temporarily after emergency . For example re Pakistan, downgraded/fuzzy quality data was shared. There are some agreements in place, … us govt put in place frameworks to source data. For example that the imagery can only be used in an OSM editor. But need to be able to derrive vector data from it (hence there are issues with using Google imagery in this way).

Luke Cayley(sp?): (missed). concur w/ Nigel, Ivan. Q re imagery: have you tried to get it from European disaster mechanism, Copernicus, which has some provisions for disaster readyness prep.

Harry: will follow up on this.

Luke Q: how aid agencies use the raw data in the field to collect data? eg. MSF, … What’s your feeling for the barriers to making this a well recognised procedure, using OSM as one of the tools to make that happen?

Harry: did start to discuss re Phillipines, … about data into OSM from on the ground teams. With Haiti streetnames you don’t get them from the raw imagery so needs on-the-ground gathering. The process for on the ground gathering is pretty mature around OSM, tools, mobile apps etc. But a case of getting ppl interested in doing that. In diaster response situatoin, it is hard to tell peopel they ought to be writing down names of streets.

Q: for DFID Luke, … a number of funds are available. Because OSM is a global public good, it is the kind of thing DFID would tend to be supportive of in funding proposals (but can’t promise).

Harry: re diaster situation, often it won’t be a priority during the diaster to collect street names. All it takes is geo-located photos, a snap of a street sign.

Q from someone called Chris … you spoke of satellite imagery as source for mapping. Are you exploring use of pro-sumer vs aerial imagery?

Harry: Satellite imagery is now approaching aerial photography quality, but remains expensive due to operational cost. Another cost is the vast amount of disk space, bandwidth, hosting costs. These problems are not insurmountable. OSM and HOT have some resources to help here – ‘talk to us’.  Aerial imagery historically has been better. If you look at Bing or Google ‘satellite’ images they’re often from planes, so yes, that can help. Also new area of drones over small (but maybe important) areas.

WOT in RDFa?

(This post is written in RDFa…)

To the best of my knowledge, Ludovic Hirlimann‘s PGP fingerprint is 6EFBD26FC7A212B2E093 B9E868F358F6C139647C. You might also be interested in his photos on flickr, or his workplace, Mozilla Messaging. The GPG key details were checked over a Skype video call with me, Ludo and Kaare A. Larsen.

This blog post isn’t signed, the URIs it referenced don’t use SSL, and the image could be switched by evildoers at any time! But the question’s worth asking: is this kind of scruffy key info useful, if there’s enough of it? If I wrote it somehow in Thunderbird’s editor instead, would it be easier to sign? Will 99.9% of humans ever know enough of what’s going on to understand what signing a bunch of complex markup means?

For earlier discussion of this kind of thing, see Joseph Reagle’s Key-free Trust piece (“Does Google Show How the Semantic Web Could Replace Public Key Infrastructure?”). It’s more PKI-free trust than PK-free.

Imagemap magic

I’ve always found HTML imagemaps to be a curiously neglected technology. They seem somehow to evoke the Web of the mid-to-late 90s, to be terribly ‘1.0’. But there’s glue in the old horse yet…

A client-side HTML imagemap lets you associate links (and via Javascript, behaviour) with regions of an image. As such, they’re a form of image metadata that can have applications including image search, Web accessibility and social networking. They’re also a poor cousin to the Web’s new vector image format, SVG. This morning I dug out some old work on this (much of which from Max, Libby, Jim all of whom btw are currently working at Joost; as am I, albeit part-time).

The first hurdle you hit when you want to play with HTML imagemaps is finding an editor that produces them. The fact that my blog post asking for MacOSX HTML imagemap editors is now top Google hit for “MacOSX HTML imagemap” pretty much says it all. Eventually I found (and paid for) one called YokMak that seems OK.

So the first experiment here, was to take a picture (of me) and make a simple HTML imagemap.

danbri being imagemapped

As a step towards treating this as re-usable metadata, here’s imagemap2svg.xslt from Max back in 2002. The results of running it with xsltproc are online: _output.svg (you need an SVG-happy browser). Firefox, Safari and Opera seem more or less happy with it (ie. they show the selected area against a pink background). This shows that imagemap data can be freed from the clutches of HTML, and repurposed. You can do similar things server-side using Apache Batik, a Java SVG toolkit. There are still a few 2002 examples floating around, showing how bits of the image can be described in RDF that includes imagemap info, and then manipulated using SVG tools driven from metadata.

Once we have this ability to pick out a region of an image (eg. photo) and tag it, it opens up a few fun directions. In the FOAF scene a few years ago, we had fun using RDF to tag image region parts with information about the things they depicted. But we didn’t really get into questions of surface-syntax, ie. how to maker rich claims about the image area directly within the HTML markup. These days, some combination of RDFa or microformats would probably be the thing to use (or perhaps GRDDL). I’ve sent mail to the RDFa group looking for help with this (see that message for various further related-work links too).

Specifically, I’d love to have some clean HTML markup that said, not just “this area of the photo is associated with the URI”, but “this area is the Person whose openid is, … and this area depicts the thing that is the primary topic of”. If we had this, I think we’d have some nice tools for finding images, for explaining images to people who can’t see them, and for connecting people and social networks through codepiction.