AUSTIN (KXAN) — Satellite images of rural towns, sprawling woodlands and grooved mountainsides fill the computer screens as homeowners and students scroll across digital maps.
This group of a few dozen people gathered on Friday at the Perry Castenada Library on the University of Texas at Austin campus for a four-hour disaster relief mapathon to bolster humanitarian efforts in Puerto Rico, where 91 percent of the island is still without electricity, and Mexico, which was ravaged by a 6.1 earthquake.
With President Donald Trump threatening to pull emergency responders from Puerto Rico, major universities around the nation are stepping in to help aid organizations better supply aid through open-source mapping which will allow organizations to pinpoint people in need and better allocate aid.
Universities from all over the country put their information into OpenStreetMap, a free wiki global map and open source platform that contains information on places around the globe. Volunteers then eagerly follow along and hand trace routes as guides process it to them.
Hannah Alpert-Abrams, a post-doctoral fellow at the LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections guided volunteers in using GIS to identify buildings and collect data for aid workers on the ground in these countries.
“We have lots and lots of data for places like Austin but we don’t have data or information for more rural places, places outside the continental U.S.,” explains Alpert-Abrams. “Aid organizations need information about where people are located and what kind of infrastructure in order to better allocate resources and make decisions.”
Alpert-Abrams says this will make allocating aid much more effective. Projects like this have worked before when new maps were created following a hurricane in Haiti and earthquake in Nepal.
“Our goal is to help get them that information so that they can be more effective in providing aid,” says Alpert-Abrams.