Helping Puerto Rico, one click at a time

As the island of Puerto Rico tries to pick up the pieces after the devastating landfall of Hurricane Maria, a group of students at Sunlake High School offered their help in the recovery efforts — via classroom computers nearly 1,200 miles away.

Sunlake High School geography teacher Anne Cullison introduced her classes to a collaborative project called The Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team. (Courtesy of Sunlake High School)

On Oct. 2 and Oct. 3, students in teacher Anne Cullison’s Advanced Placement (AP) Geography class participated in a collaborative project called The Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, a nonprofit that does emergency mapping in the wake of disasters.

Cullison’s two classes, comprised of mostly freshman, mapped areas affected in Puerto Rico using what’s called OpenStreetMap, a web project that uses open-source geospatial data, and satellite imagery to create better, digitally available maps of the area.

Over the course of two days, Cullison’s students mapped and validated everything from buildings and streets, to homes and parking garages.

The exercise, also performed by numerous volunteers worldwide, serves a critical resource when relief organizations, such as the American Red Cross and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), are responding to disasters — by providing more details on the island’s roads and buildings, in part to give them information about who needs help and how to get there.

Cullison explained relief organizations working in Puerto Rico struggle to help those trapped in rural areas in the interior of the island, due to little data on roadways and buildings. Small towns may also not be labeled on maps, so in some cases, aid workers may not even know which towns exist.

But, with up-to-date maps, “the Red Cross…can go in and start actually checking destroyed things and go, ‘OK, well that was a building,’” Cullison said.

“It could also give them data about areas that may be without power or what kind of infrastructure needs to be rebuilt,” she said.

Hurricane Maria unleashes her fury

Puerto Rico was hit by Hurricane Maria, a Category 5 Hurricane, on Sept. 20. More than 1,500 roads and bridges were damaged after the hurricane. Rebuilding them could cost more than $240 million, transportation officials estimate. Forty-five deaths have been reported in Puerto Rico alone, as of Oct. 10. (Courtesy of U.S. Department of Defense)

Hurricane Maria, a Category 5 Hurricane, hit Puerto Rico on Sept. 20 after barreling into Dominica.

Regarded as the worst natural disaster on record in Dominica, Hurricane Maria also caused catastrophic damage and a major humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico.

More than 1,500 roads and bridges were damaged after the hurricane, and rebuilding them could cost more than $240 million, transportation officials estimate. There also have been 45 known deaths in Puerto Rico alone, as of Oct. 10.

The Humanitarian OpenStreet Map Team seeks to help emergency responders help people affected in disaster zones.

The group was initially organized after the Haiti earthquake in 2010. At the time, the maps available of the country were on paper, and mostly outdated.

A loose network of volunteers started using OpenStreetMap, to create better, digitally available maps of the area.

Since then, emergency disaster mappers have worked to coordinate their responses to provide more directed, higher quality maps — to give disaster response workers better information.

Cullison explained OpenStreetMaps differs from Google Maps, as Google Maps is proprietary software that doesn’t allow third parties to label buildings and residential areas and so on.

“If you pull up a Google Map of Puerto Rico, it’s going to look essentially like (OpenStreetMaps), but there’s nothing you do with it,” Cullison said.

OpenStreetMaps, however, can provide relief organizations data about the types of infrastructure that needs to be rebuilt in a certain area by detailing, “exactly what was there” prior to a natural disaster.

As an example closer to home, Cullison pointed out Google Maps has labeled streets and large buildings, like Sunlake High School, but not her own residential neighborhood.

“None of the homes around here are mapped…so we would have some of the exact same problems,” the high school teacher said.

Geography teacher brings her lessons to life
Cullison herself learned about humanitarian mapping last spring, when she participated in the American Geological Society teacher fellowship program. She was one of 50 teachers selected for the program, which was held at Columbia University in New York City.

Besides Sunlake, volunteers from other universities — including Boston University, Trinity College, Miami (Ohio) University, the University of Miami, Rutgers (New Jersey) University and University of Nebraska Omaha — held simultaneous “mapathons” for Puerto Rico on their own campuses.

Meanwhile, other worldwide emergency mapping projects also are being done for Mexico, following a trio of September earthquakes, and for Bangladesh, after experiencing devastating flooding during monsoon season.

Madeline Murch, a freshman Advanced Placement geography student, marks buildings on OpenStreetMap, to gives relief organizations in Puerto Rico information about who needs help and how to get there. (Kevin Weiss)

Many of Cullison’s students, including freshman AP student Madeline Murch, found the two-day humanitarian activity worthwhile.

“It’s really nice knowing that you can help other people, just from sitting in your class and doing work at a computer, but knowing that it’s still helping others. I feel like it’s time well spent,” Murch said.

Diego Montoya, another freshman AP student, agreed that it’s great to be able to help others.

He also noted: “This class just kind of opened my eyes a bit to what’s actually going on in the world, rather than what’s going on just like in technology.”

The way Cullison sees it, the exercise has both philanthropic and educational benefits.

“This is kind of getting them some hands-on use in terms of GIS software and the layers,” she said. “We were already a little bit behind because of our own hurricane in losing (school) days, but I decided this was worth it so I pushed our schedule a little bit farther to get them into this, for them to see what we can actually do with geography.”

Throughout the year, Cullison plans to introduce her classes to other geographic-related software techniques, like Esri, an international supplier of geographic information system (GIS) software.

“It’s different than a regular geography course. It’s not just about, ‘Here’s a map and let’s talk about the culture in one place.’” said Cullison, who’s taught geography and social studies for 13 years.

Instead, students in her AP class learn about global development, migration, culture and religion, resource disparity, political geography and urban development, among other topics.

“We have the interplay between the human aspect and the physical aspects and where they come together,” Cullison explained.

“Kids come out more understanding, more caring, because they understand a little bit more about the world. They really start to understand the plight of some of the other people around the world, instead of having the veil of a fairly privileged upbringing.”

Published Oct. 18, 2017

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