Students use open source mapping to aid relief efforts in Nepal

Half a world away, UW Civil and Environmental Engineering students trace the outlines of roads, paths, and buildings in Nepal from their laptops. Using open data software OpenStreetMap, Jessica Kaminsky’s CEE 420 Civil Engineering in Developing Communities class joined an online community effort to turn satellite imagery of Nepal into maps and aid the earthquake relief effort. These digitized maps provide emergency responders with critical data to guide teams deployed on the ground.

With each student contributing five hours of assigned emergency mapping, the class’ efforts totaled 120 hours of meaningful disaster response work. Even just a few hours makes a difference with thousands of volunteers working around the globe.

“If you look at the statistics next to the maps, it’s really cool to see how much time people have donated in just a week and a half,” said graduate student James Lew.

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Image: Mapping by OpenStreetMap community in Nepal, Mapbox, CC 2.0

Students remarked how easily accessible the process was, and how rewarding it felt to see their skills make an immediate impact beyond the walls of the classroom.

“Finding that one little village with no major highways and being able to tell someone that that village is there is really rewarding, because if it’s not marked on that map, then there’s a lot of cracks that it could slip through,” said graduate student Leigh Allison.

“It’s almost like saying, ‘Don’t forget us,’” said Lew. “There’s a tendency to want to do the major cities, and the infrastructure that’s closest to the major highways, but as you get further and further out, there’s still houses out there that are disconnected. It’s really cool to draw a box around them and say, there’s a family here, don’t forget them.”

Engineering in Developing Communities examines infrastructure and construction in very poor, often remote locations, and dives into topics such as sanitation, energy, cross-cultural communication, and disasters. The emergency mapping project tied into many of the class themes, Kaminsky explained, and “students feel like they’re making a meaningful contribution with their classwork.”

“In this class, we try to look beyond the technical aspects of engineering to how what we do affects communities and potential social impacts,” said senior Nick Orsi. “With this [project], the work that you did could directly relate to saving lives. Just having that thought process behind you, it really motivated you to do good work that would hopefully make it easier for people to help out some of the victims there.”

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