Image: Humanitarian Open Street Map

Ever since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, a grassroots network of volunteers has been helping the island get back on its feet in an unexpected way. They’re using satellite images to create digital maps of buildings and roads that relief workers with FEMA and the Red Cross are using to reach those in need.

Most volunteers will spend an hour logging a few dozen structures on the open-source mapping site Humanitarian Open Street Map, before getting back to their jobs, families, and lives. But Michael, a 57-year-old software engineer in Ottawa, Canada, has spent dozens of hours logging thousands of structures. And thanks to drone footage released by the National Weather Service this week, he’s now able to help even more.

“As long as there’s a need for it, any time I have a spare moment, I go in and do ten minutes of contribution,” Michael, who preferred to be identified on a first name-only basis, told Earther.

Michael first learned about Humanitarian Open Street Map, which has been working with thousands of volunteers to furnish aid organizations with high quality digital maps of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure, through an Earther article earlier this month.

“Twenty minutes later I had signed up, and within thirty minutes I was mapping buildings,” he said. “The first few days, I probably put three to four [work] days in.”

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In the 37 days since Maria struck the Puerto Rico, Michael says he has mapped or verified “likely over a thousand, possibly over two [thousand]” buildings. But he’s been limited in what he can do by the resolution of the satellite imagery available on Humanitarian Open Street Map, which was captured before Maria hit. At least, that was the case until earlier this week, when the NWS San Juan office released a 10-minute-long video showing drone footage of towns across Puerto Rico that were struck by the hurricane’s eye wall.

The drone footage is much higher resolution than the satellite images available on Humanitarian Open Street Map. It it lays bare many buildings that were previously obscured by trees, or that were invisible due to shadows. Since each town featured in the video is identified by name, Michael has been able to go back and match exact streets and buildings with the satellite images.

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All week, he’s been using the drone footage to spot buildings that were missed, or reclassify structures other volunteers got wrong.

“The video is very valuable, although for a limited area,” Michael said, adding that it takes a lot of time to track down where exactly a specific shot was taken. “And then you start determining where is this building, are there buildings in the video that aren’t on the map. Sometimes the homes are so torn apart that it’s not a 1-1 map.”

Satellite image of a cluster of trees hiding a house in Puerto Rico. Michael was able to map the house after identifying the same location using the NWS drone footage of the island released this week. Image: Humanitarian Open Street Map

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In one instance, three houses were mis-mapped as just one, something Michael was able to correct with drone footage that clearly showed the roof layouts. In another, a house was completely obscured by treetops in the satellite imagery, but thanks to the NWS video, he was able to estimate its shape and location.

“I have to let some less-than-perfect mapping that others did alone,” Michael admitted. “For the purposes the relief authorities need, it doesn’t have to be perfect, but it does need to be accurate enough to be representative of the buildings.” In some places, where he just can’t be sure how many buildings are present, he’ll leave comments on Humanitarian Open Street Map for more experienced mappers to take a look at the area.

The same area pictured above, with the trees stripped bare and the missing house clearly visible. Image: National Weather Service

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Dale Kunce, information and communication technology and analytics lead at the Red Cross, was thrilled to hear that folks were finding innovative ways to improve Puerto Rico’s digital maps.

“He is doing exactly what so many mappers before him have done,” Kunce told Earther. “Discover a new way to help, a new way to explore the world, and jump in with both feet. OpenStreetMap is strangely addictive this way, especially when you know the data is being used to help people. As described, his methodology sounds totally doable and useful, I love the inventiveness.”

“Wow,” said Ernesto Rodriguez, the meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s San Juan office who put together the drone footage video along with several friends, when I called to tell him how it was being used. Digital mapping certainly wasn’t an application he expected or anticipated.

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“It’s a simple thing we did to try to show damages,” he said. “And it’s for communication with the outside world.”

Right now, Kunce says the Red Cross is not making any new mapping requests on Open Street Map. “There is more mapping to be done in Puerto Rico, especially the roads,” he said. “However most of the data that we have is good enough for our needs.”

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That’s thanks to the 5,300+ volunteers who have logged 1.2 million buildings over the past five and a half weeks.

Of course, folks can still help make existing digital maps better—and the better they are, the more prepared relief organizations will be when the next storm rolls through. Michael plans to continue his efforts as long as there’s room to improve Puerto Rico’s maps. It’s become something of a hobby for him.

“I used to be a pilot so I had a lot of experience using maps,” he said, adding that years back, he took a course on military photo interpretation. “I’d have to take eight by ten, black and white photos and place them from multiple satellite and plane images,” to create a montage that others would use to make a map. “So I have some experience.” 

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“But you do not need any of that type of experience,” he emphasized. “An amateur can go in and within 30 minutes, they’re making a valuable contribution.”