QUITO, ECUADOR – After a massive earthquake hit Ecuador’s coast in April, the country was devastated. Entire towns were destroyed, hundreds were killed and thousands more left homeless.
The scene was chaotic, and aid efforts immediately sprung up across the country. But this included more than donation points and people rushing to the coast to try to help. It also included online activists working behind the scenes who began mapping the crisis from their computers – a growing movement known as digital humanitarianism.
‘In the beginning, the feeling of helplessness of people here was intense,’ said Ricardo Arguello, a digital volunteer in Quito some 200 km from the earthquake’s epicenter on the coast. He is one of many minds behind the crisis mapping website AyudaEcuador.ec (Help Ecuador).
‘But many of the people volunteering here told me that they feel they are doing something concrete, something that works effectively… that what they know, technology, is being applied directly to the problem.’
One major reason that crisis mapping has been successful is that it relies entirely on crowdsourcing and open source software, making the technology available to everyone, not just tech junkies. And the fact that it’s all online means anyone around the world can help.
The night of Ecuador’s earthquake on 16 April, software engineers, website designers and mappers from around the world instantly took to chat groups to discuss how technology could help the victims. They quickly compiled maps of the disaster zones, then began to receive messages directly from people on the ground via SMS and social media (mainly Twitter) and reported their needs onto the map.
Within little time, this group of volunteers grew to include regular citizens, who helped filter through, prioritize and map the incoming messages. The result is a more accurate way to locate what aid is needed where, and deliver it faster.
‘It’s a socially interesting phenomenon because this has never happened here before, the idea that we all come together due to software or something technological…’ said Arguello.
The idea that maps are necessary for crisis response is nothing new. It has long been a necessary tool in disaster zones to try to make sense of the chaos on the ground.
But mappers often ran into problems since existing maps were often out of date or incomplete, especially in rural areas, making it hard to report exactly where aid was needed.
Online crisis mapping has revolutionized this process by arming regular citizens with the tools to create better maps and pinpoint where aid is really needed.
The crux of this initiative is two main platforms, Ushadihi and Open Street Maps.
What is Ushahidi?
Ushahidi, which means ‘witness’ in Swahili, is an open source software that was developed in Kenya in 2007, as a response to the violence unfolding across the country during the national elections.
The platform was created to collect reports of violence from citizens, then categorize and place those reports onto a map to inform others.