Roadmap for Haiti's Future

‘Cloud in the sky’ idea brings Haiti relief efforts into focus for geography students

2/23/2010 | By: John Trent  |

The world’s ills are too many to list, with the devastation caused by a massive earthquake that hit Haiti on Jan. 12, killing more than 200,000 people, the most recent example.

And yet, from devastation can also come rebuilding and redemption – that even in the face of untold tragedy and suffering, there can be a feeling that all is not lost.

Such has been the experience for a group of University of Nevada, Reno geography students and their instructor. They have spent the early days of the spring semester participating in a worldwide effort using the open digital technology source OpenStreetMap to help Haiti in its effort to rebuild.

Using their own free time, students in the Geography 312 cartography class have focused on distinct geographic grids in Haiti and the neighboring Dominican Republic to map roads, rivers and a whole host of key, distinguishing landmarks.

“Students often ask themselves, in classes, why do I need to know this ‘stuff,’ or ‘when will I use this?’” says Geography 312 instructor Cassie Hansen, whose own work as a graduate student at the University earned the 2007 National Geographic award for mapping. “So this opportunity has allowed for the basic skills of digitizing to be used for the greater purpose, to help relief efforts on the ground in Haiti.”

Hansen has been impressed by her students’ response.

“Not all the students had the skills to jump into this project, so as they are building their skills, they’re able to participate,” she says. “Those who have been working since week one find it gratifying to see the roads and rivers continue to grow as more people contribute to this project.”

Scott Henry, a senior geography major from Fallon, said he has always been aware of Haiti’s status as one of the most impoverished nations in the world. The Haitian earthquake, followed by the mapping effort by his class, however, has brought the situation into a much clearer focus.

“I was certainly aware of the area prior to the earthquake, but once the news started to come out about Port-Au-Prince, and what Cassie decided the class should do, this has taken on a whole new life of its own,” Henry said. “This is our contribution to the effort down there.”

Henry said that the project also is a clear illustration of the power of shared technology and human resources.

“What’s good about this project is it’s not just about Haiti or the Dominican Republic, although in a strict sense, it is,” he says. “In a broader sense, it can be about anywhere. It can be about Fernley, where that levee broke a few years ago (on Jan. 5, 2008, an irrigation canal’s earthen levee ruptured following heavy rains, flooding hundreds of homes in Fernley and forcing the rescue of dozens). You could apply it there. You can apply this whole idea of cloud computing, with contributions from people all over the world, this whole open source idea, to almost any aspect of the world.

“It’s a whole new movement. We’re coming out of the 1990s, where everything is the intellectual property of someone, and moving into a more open source, cloud-in-the-sky idea.”

For the technophobe, digital technology such as OpenStreetMap is surprisingly easy to use. Henry said it is essentially built into the OpenStreetMap website (

“Anyone with a browser can do it,” he says.

Using satellite imagery, participants such as Henry pick a location, and, with a few clicks of their mouse, start re-drawing roads.

“Each one of us is responsible for our own little square, based on the skills that we’ve learned in the cartography/map drawing class,” Henry explains. “Since all of the software is built into your browser, you’re using skills like line drawing or curve drawing that you would find in Adobe Illustrator. But other than that, anyone can approach it. That’s what’s kind of nice about it. Anyone with an interest can do it.”

Hansen said the process creates its own momentum. The small areas that Henry described, over the course of several hours, can go from having no intelligible landmarks to being dotted with roads and streets, which in turn beget even more detail, such as buildings and other key landmarks.

And that’s only the beginning.

“When I started digitizing there were only major roads on the map,” Hansen said. “Now there are urban streets and GPS data that was uploaded that showed local hospitals with important information tied to the points, such as the phone number of the hospital and the number of patients.”

The effort by map enthusiasts has not gone unnoticed by those on the ground in Haiti. A recent Google search of the terms “OpenStreetMap Haiti” yielded 199,000 results. Many of them are blog or twitter accounts, extolling the virtues of this ambitious online push to map Haiti.

United Kingdom blogger Harry Wood, 30, wrote of his own work: “The response by the OpenStreetMap community has been impressive, with massive mapping progress in a very short space of time. What started out for me as a little casual doodling of streets in Yahoo! Imagery, has rapidly turned into a collaboration of mappers using post-quake aerial imagery. … For me, the exciting thing about this past week, has been an increase in recognition of OpenStreetMap as a valuable source of map data.”

According to “Geothought,” a geospatial and location technology blog by Peter Batty, the Oxford-educated president of Spatial Networking, reaction by rescue workers to the work done through OpenStreetMap has been uniformly positive. Batty quotes one member of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs as saying of OpenStreetMap, “Basically it’s the best source of transportation information we have for Haiti … it’s the most comprehensive one, and the most up to date, of course. This is information that everyone is using here.”

Henry, whose work has primarily centered on neighboring San Cristobal and Bani in the Dominican Republic, says he spends time between classes in the Mackay Science Building, “10 or 15 minutes that just kind of accumulates over time” for his mapping, as well as time spent on weekends.

“You can get lost in the moment,” says Henry, a friendly young man whose personality is a winning academic mix of psychology, English and, now, in his senior year, geography major. “And when data isn’t clear, you have to use other map sources in order to get things just right. It is kind of detail work. But then again, I’ve always been kind of a detail-oriented person, so it’s right up my alley.”

He says Hansen could not have found a more “real-world, real-time” out-of-class exercise than what he’s been doing so far this semester.

“I really do like it,” he says. “Certainly for an area like Haiti, or any disaster area, heaven forbid, this could be the one useful thing that will help out the people on the ground who are trying to give aid and to help the people who are trying to get out of the area.”

And, Henry adds with a smile, it also helps give tangible proof that the field of geography, if anything, is as dynamic and ever-changing as any other scientific endeavor.

Clearly, it represents a bright spot of human potential for a more collaborative world.

“That’s the thing you realize,” he says. “Maps are always changing. I hear it all the time from my grandparents. When I tell them I want to be a geographer, they say, ‘Haven’t they mapped everything already?’

“Things are always changing.”


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