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Filling In the “Missing Maps” of Hurricane Mathew

Although GW is almost 1,500 miles from Haiti, when Hurricane Matthew battered the Caribbean nation, students and library staff rushed to help. More than 70 people came together just four days after the storm made a direct hit on the west coast of Haiti to assist relief efforts in a novel way. Rather than collect food or medicine, they made the distribution of those relief supplies possible by mapping the devastation.

This mapping was done using OpenStreetMap (OSM), a digital platform that provides outlines of cities in remote areas using satellite photography and geospatial technology. Users examine aerial images to determine the layout of specified regions and label details to create digital maps. For example, one might observe in a photo that a small oblong figure actually represents a house or a long rectangle might clearly be a road. It only takes minutes to learn to use OSM, and volunteers can map from wherever they are in the world.

“When a disaster strikes, the first thing you need is a map,” says Kean McDermott, BA ‘14, GW Libraries’ geographic information systems (GIS) specialist. “The information provided by this project tells relief agencies like the Red Cross how much food they will need to provide and where they will find the greatest need.”

“Humanitarian mapping seeks to render and better the world through geographic information system projects,” says student Alex Fried, president of GW’s Humanitarian Mapping Society, a partner in this event with the American Red Cross’s Missing Maps Project and the GW Libraries. “Mapping helps aid projects run more efficiently with more accurate information.”

As they worked together to create maps of the Haitian villages of Central Grande Anse and Île de la Tortue, students had an opportunity to interact with professionals from the Department of State, the National Geographic Society, and USAID, among others.

Students who want to take their mapping further can use the Libraries’ powerful ArcGIS software and consult with McDermott, who regularly works with students and faculty to find and use geographically referenced data. Student researchers often use this robust tool to conduct, analyze, and visualize their data while gaining hands-on experience in this increasingly marketable skill.


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