Student’s research leads to humanitarian mapping work

Monday, November 25, 2013 - 10:29am

While working on his dissertation on volunteered geographic information, Department of Geography doctoral student Sterling Quinn noticed that one of these kinds of applications, OpenStreetMap, was being used for typhoon Haiyan relief, as it was for the 2010 Haiti earthquake, and decided to volunteer his help, too.

tacloban map


An image of Tacloban from OpenStreetMap that has been used for humanitarian purposes. Notice the detailed buildings digitized and marked by contributors.



OpenStreetMap is an online map built by volunteers in the same pattern as Wikipedia: anyone can add, edit, or delete any feature, and the data is free to download. But the amount of useful data for any location varies depending on the skills, resources, and opportunities of local populations. “Some areas are what Mark Graham (Director of Research at the Oxford Internet Institute) calls ‘virtual black holes’ until someone facilitates the collection of information there,” Quinn said. “Pre-earthquake Port Au Prince is a good example of this. I am interested in places that remain ‘virtual black holes’ in the map and how the growth of mapping communities can be encouraged in those areas. I am also interested in how contributors to OpenStreetMap can be guided to add the most socially meaningful features to the map (such as parks, gardens, and bus routes), in addition to the standard roads, businesses, and building footprints.”


“Volunteers are needed for the very simple work of looking at satellite imagery and tracing existing roads, buildings, and residential areas,” Quinn said.  “People might wonder: Why trace imagery that happened before the storm? Well, a detailed map of the area pre-typhoon is still useful to aid workers. Some advanced volunteers are now examining imagery of the damage and marking buildings as damaged, but in order to do that, you have to have the buildings and residential areas in the map to begin with. This is where crowdsourcing is helpful.” The Red Cross’s use of volunteered geographic information was featured in a recent article in The Atlantic.


The work is organized by the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap team so that you can informally claim a sector to work on. This ensures that duplication is avoided. You don't need to commit to finishing a sector; you can fit the work into whatever amount of time is available to you, Quinn said, adding that no special GIS skills or software are needed; all the work can be done in your browser.


Quinn organized a meeting to demonstrate the tool and enlist others in the volunteer mapping work. “About 12 to 15 people showed up at the talk I gave, representing various departments and clubs. I have gotten some other informal e-mail solicitation since that time,” Quinn said. “People who are interested in helping can contact me and I can send them some tutorial instructions that I wrote up, or give a talk. I am really just getting started with this myself, but I organized the meeting in order to share what I had learned.”


Quinn hopes to get together an OpenStreetMap group in State College next semester and do occasional mapping parties to ensure that central Pennsylvania is well represented on the map. There is a reasonable amount of detail in State College, but not in some of the surrounding communities, he notes.

"In the longer term, I am studying how OpenStreetMap growth can be fostered in places where the map is not built out yet, like Latin America, " he said.


If you want to get started with OpenStreetMap, go to and create an account. No personal information is required; just an e-mail address to prove you are a human. The page organizing the Typhoon Haiyan work is