The American Red Cross is stitching thousands of crowdsourced photos into OpenStreetMap to get a better view of the world’s most vulnerable communities and assess their needs as part of its Missing Maps project.
Founded by the Red Cross, the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team and Doctors Without Borders, the Missing Maps project plots out vulnerable sites in developing countries to facilitate humanitarian aid in emergency situations and coordinate long-term needs.
To do this, the American Red Cross relies extensively on Mapillary – an open source photo app that provides real-time data for cities and governments by crowdsourcing photos and layering them for an alternative map view.
“Individuals and organizations not only can chart where no cars can go, but can also track landscape changes over time through the eyes of the people on the ground,” said Mapillary’s Sweden-based CEO and co-founder, Jan Erik Solem.
Mapillary, a play on the words “map” and “capillary,” lets anyone with a camera or a smartphone capture photos of their surroundings and upload them to its database.
“Our users are taking photos of the routes less traveled to create a comprehensive map of our complex and intricate world,” Solem added.
American Red Cross Senior Geospatial Engineer, Dale Kunce, said volunteers use satellite imagery to trace buildings and roads, using an open online system built on OpenStreetMap. Meanwhile, Red Cross teams train citizens in Haiti, Tanzania, Rwanda, South Africa and various other countries how to use Mapillary with available cameras and cellphones to photograph and upload street views that complement the satellite tracing.
“We go out to the field and use Mapillary,” he said. “We attach these little cameras onto the Red Cross trucks. And when we’re just going around and doing our work … we’re able to capture these images and what the community looks like.”
Once uploaded into the database, “Mapillary’s software stitches the photos together across time and users to create a 3D-view of the landscape, allowing anyone to take a virtual tour of just about anywhere in the world,” said Solem.
The pictures are processed with privacy guards to blur faces and license plates before they are published. Once added to OpenStreetMap, they allow the Red Cross and its partners to see what buildings and roads look like, the materials used to build them, and what resources the organization might need to deploy in those areas.
“That map is a living map,” said Kunce. “It’s a living document … The world is always changing. There’s new buildings going up next to you all the time, and so the OpenStreetMap is able to change and adapt. And that’s one of the reasons why we use Mapillary – because we can see the change and the evolution of what a community looks like over time.”
Sending one truck down one street at a time gives the organization “a snapshot of what that imagery looks like and what it actually means to be on that street,” said Kunce. While sitting 8,000 miles away in Washington, DC, he can “look at stuff that is happening in Zimbabwe just by training a couple of local folks to go through and do that.”
With multi-year projects like the one in Haiti, Red Cross volunteers trace the same route every three months. The aim, said Kunce, is to “visually see the change between when the Red Cross was not involved in a project there to … what the community looks like after the Red Cross intervention.”
The information is part of a long-term process that informs decision makers, donors and the general public about potential hazards and helps them better understand what it is like to be, for example, in “a Rwanda transitional camp when there are 7,000 new people that are going to be there today that won’t be there tomorrow,” said Kunce.
The goal, said Solem, is to “track how the world changes in big and small ways over time” – a process that has enabled humanitarian organizations to “upload pictures of remote, vulnerable areas that would otherwise not be available elsewhere” and compare them through different time periods.
The Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, Mapillary and the World Bank are also creating accurate maps of flood-prone areas in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to see the affected areas, the condition of the buildings and roads, the distances between the villages, and to plan out logistics as needed.
Solem, who predicts that all companies will become software companies over time, said Mapillary is “working with nonprofits and governments alike to prepare them for the digital age.”
“Now, cities, first responders and volunteers have access to thousands of maps and massive amounts of raw data that is collected by the people that know the landscape best: the citizens.”