Open Source Maps Are Helping the World Bank Save Lives in Haiti

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An aid worker from the European Commission holds a PDF printout from OpenStreetMaps.

The humanitarian relief effort underway in Haiti is proving the true potential of open source map building. Don't take my word for it, follow the Tweets and blogs of my friend Schuyler Erle. He's on the ground in Port-au-Prince along with Tom Buckley, a developer of mapmaking program GeoCommons Maker. The pair are advising the World Bank on the use of crowd-sourced mapping, primarily through the open-source program OpenStreetMap, in the relief and recovery effort in Haiti. They are also dealing with rain, illness, PowerBar meals, World Bank contacts snowbound back in DC, and bureaucratic alphabet soup.

"Since mid-January, we've seen a whole set of interlocking technical communities swung into gear to piece together geographic information to help relief efforts after the earthquake in Haiti: OpenStreetMap, Ushahidi, CrisisMappers, and so on," Erle writes. He's an open-source smart maps ninja--cofounder of OpenLayers, author of the books Mapping Hacks and Google Maps Hacks, and creator of a program that allowed for historians to make crowdsourced improvements to the New York Public Library's digital maps archive.

"The most amazing thing to me about this global response to the disaster is the degree to which volunteers have been able to make a significant impact on the relief situation while sitting at their own desks, thousands of miles away. OpenStreetMap, particularly, has been a model of distributed collaboration, with basically no one calling the shots, while a thousand people painstakingly build a map database of Haiti drawn from aerial and satellite imagery that's so detailed that the Ushahidi volunteers have to ask for a simpler version."

Erle says the humanitarian applications of Geographic Information Systems may truly comes of age as a result of this disaster. "OpenStreetMap really *has* become the gold standard for base map data in the relief and recovery effort in Haiti."

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Photos by Schuyler Erle via Twitpic

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