Humanitarian Open Street Map

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Humanitarian OpenStreetMap

  • Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT)
    • A separate org that brings open geographic data to humanitarian crisis response and development.
    • Helps make mapping data for orgs like Doctors Without Borders to serve relief efforts
  • Intro: In 2005 Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast of the US. Among the destruction was a washed-out highway bridge hampering evacuation; the Red Cross did not know the bridge was washed out, and directed evacuees to use it because it still displayed on Google Maps. We cannot wait on corporations like Google to keep up with crises as they’re happening.
  • So what is OpenStreetMap (OSM)? It’s like Wikipedia for geographic data. It’s not a map, but rather a database of geographic data which can be used for many purposes (including making maps).
  • So why bother when we have Google? Proprietary maps fail us (as in the anecdote above). Proprietary data may be wrong, and people have no avenue to redress it (e.g. a road may be too wide for trucks despite what SATNAV says).
  • Maps tell stories about place by abstracting data. If we don’t control the narrative elements of our places, then someone else—like a commercial entity—will.
  • With OSM, the people create and update the data.
  • Licensing and use:
    • OSM can be used for any purpose so long as credit is given to contributors. OSM has a sharealike license, which is controversial in the community.


  • How HOT works with OSM:
    • In humanitarian crises, it’s crucial to be able to update maps quickly. Hundreds of volunteers are able to contribute to a crisis, making the data up-to-date, adequate, and accessible.
    • One way to do this is for volunteers to digitize satalite imagery. After the 2010 Haitian earthquake, volunteers were able to create maps this way and work with Haitians who had local knowledge to label the maps. Port-au-Prince was sufficiently mapped in a week.
  • How the HOT process works:
    • 1. Disaster occurs
    • 2. HOT asks OSM community to help map the affected area
    • 2a. Humanitarian orbs contact HOT to refine and specify areas of key concern to map
    • 3. HOT OSM mapathon! The community maps areas individually, together, and through organized events. Each individual might “check out” a grid square (like in GIT), work on it, and then check it back in. The grid is then reviewed, worked on if necessary, and then approved.
  • In this way, many workers can work together on a map without stepping on each other’s toes. Like any crowdsourced project, HOT is subject to waxing and waning public interest, although it has a core community of active users. This can be challenging when responding to sustained challenges like the Ebola outbreak, as opposed to more event-based challenges.
  • HOT is always looking for volunteers, which can be as relaxing as knitting. You can help!