How the CDC used consumer mapping tech in Haiti

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

Writing for Government Health IT, Carolyn Duffy Marsan explores the CDC’s reliance on free and open source mapping software and web applications in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake. It seems at first almost incongruous, a colossal federal agency working to save lives in the wake of a great disaster using the same Google Maps tools we’d use to plot the shortest route to Costco, but, as Marsan explains, there are fantastic reasons to rely upon free consumer technology in such a situation.

The most obvious, of course, is accessibility. Even in the decentralized chaos that reigned in the hours following the quake, thousands of people on the ground had access to Google Maps, or at least to messaging services that would connect them to people with access to the maps. Likewise, Google Earth’s satellite imagery helped officials in the United States rapidly locate health services, as well as water sources and open areas where displaced locals were likely to congregate, and thus to coordinate first responders and organize on-site data, even from their remote location.


Another advantage, officials told Marsan, was that the data accumulated by American and international agencies in such formats was highly transferable and simple to combine, mash up and eventually hand over to the Haitian government. Furthermore, this data portability has allowed the myriad agencies and individuals involved in the recovery efforts to quickly adopt slightly more specialized tools such as wiki-like OpenStreetMap and the well-known crisis crowdsourcer Ushahidi.

Ushahidi takes data supplied via just about any available format and turns it into something useful through a blend of high technology and human effort.

Ushahidi maps were also used to display field hospitals, pharmacies and medical supplies. Now the group is working with a team of doctors in Boston to create the ability to track the spread of infectious diseases. Ushahidi Haiti has a network of 300 volunteers that help create maps from the thousands of text messages and emails received from the field. Sewell says the data provided by the diaspora has been more accurate than the media in some cases.

In a mapless world like post-quake Haiti, consumer mapping tools helped document the new geography and coordinate efforts, both through OpenStreetMaps, which supplied the first usable maps of the affected areas, and through mobile devices.

“You can’t say, ‘Let’s meet at a particular street,’ because the streets have been destroyed,” (Antonio Zugaldia, an information officer with the Pan American Health Organization’s Emergency Operations Center in Washington DC) said. “Instead, you offer a real-time location using GPS on your BlackBerry and you can share that with your colleagues with Google Latitude. You can then easily divide your team into sub-teams and keep track of them. It’s a very simple tool that provided an excellent service.”

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