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Mapping a Disfigured Port-au-Prince

Students help produce maps of devastated areas for relief and rebuilding


A group of geography and remote sensing students, researchers, and professors spent last weekend at BU’s Center for Remote Sensing producing maps for the relief effort in Haiti: (from left) Marta Ribera (GRS’15), Michael Mann (GRS’08,’12), Carlyn Hall (GRS’12), Asnakew Yeshiwondim (GRS’08,’12), Maryne Shephard (SHA’07, GRS’11), Jared Newell (GRS’10), Center for Remote Sensing Research Associate Professor Magaly Koch, and Nathan Phillips and Sucharita Gopal, both CAS geography and environment professors. Not pictured: Maxwell Metcalfe (CAS’12) and Jennifer Stacy, administrative assistant at the center. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

The e-mail plea went out Friday afternoon, and within hours, seven geography and remote sensing students appeared in the office of Sucharita Gopal at the College of Arts & Sciences. Shirtsleeves were rolled up, pizza ordered, and little sleep had. But by Monday morning, a BU delegation on its way to Haiti was carrying something almost as valuable as food and water: maps.

Last week’s catastrophic 7.0 magnitude earthquake not only left the impoverished island nation devastated, demoralized, and heartbroken thousands of times over, it also left it disoriented — literally. What roads were passable? What were their names? Which hospitals and police stations were still standing? Where were the displaced people setting up camps? Where were the water sources?

In a stroke of good luck, an interdisciplinary team from BU, comprising urban planning professors from Metropolitan College, as well as professors and researchers from BU’s Center for Remote Sensing and the CAS department of geography and environment, had been working for more than a year with Haitian colleagues on a sustainable redevelopment project in Haiti. The country’s interior minister visited campus last September, and a handful of Gopal’s graduate students were providing support as well, with several planning trips to Haiti for fieldwork.

But in the wake of the historic disaster, which destroyed countless vital records and all but wiped out land-based communications systems, their classroom knowledge would be tested sooner than expected. Members of BU’s redevelopment team were putting together a trip to Haiti to assist the interior minister’s office with damage assessment and rebuilding strategy. They would be leaving in three days. Updated maps would be critical for both short- and long-term efforts.

“I sent a group e-mail, saying, ‘Help, if you want to,’ and the students all showed up to work,” says Gopal, a CAS professor of geography and environment, and a redevelopment team member. “All weekend we were making maps, until Monday. None of them had thoughts for food. They were like zombies, so I had to call in pizza. They hardly took a break. They were working nonstop.”

This map of greater Port-au-Prince shows the latest damage based on data students and faculty culled from a variety of sources,including government agencies, open source mapping sites, and private satellite firms.

The students, all but one graduate students, scrambled to compile as much relevant and accurate geographic data as possible about Haiti’s earthquake-scarred landscape and to produce digital, and more important, hard-copy maps.

“There’s a dire need for the compilation of geospatial data in Haiti — locations of collapsed buildings, road networks — in hard-copy printouts, which is so important because of the lack of technology,” says Jared Newell (GRS’10). “You can’t go down there with sophisticated mapping technology and software. We’re really back to the basics.”

Drawing on real-time data from a variety of sources — social networking sites, blogs, private satellite firms, government agencies, and open-source mapping sites — the students focused their attention on street names and intersections, collapsed and surviving structures, water supplies, and elevations. Gopal’s colleague Magaly Koch, Associate Research Professor at BU’sCenter for Remote Sensing, pulled together remote sensing data fromcontacts around the world. To avoid duplication and strengthen verification and analysis, the team collaborated with the mapping department at Harvard University, which was compiling similar data.

“Being a student, I can’t really donate money to these relief agencies,” says Newell, who cut his geospatial teeth in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, “but I feel like my mapping and geographic information system (GIS) skills far outweigh the monetary donations I could make.”

The massive destruction is evident in this satellite image the volunteers used to help produce updated maps for the relief effort.

After the earthquake tore apart Port-au-Prince, the mapping community made great strides in compiling and distributing data for relief efforts in Haiti, a country poorly charted to begin with. Private satellite firms like DigitalGlobe and GeoEye, which can produce views of the Earth’s terrain down to the half meter, gave away images, which they ordinarily sell for tens of thousands of dollars, to relief agencies and academic institutions.

And thanks to the rise of “citizen mapping,” the latest on-the-ground information could be overlaid on those images, gridded out, and printed. After several 14-hours days, the BU students produced more than 100 street maps, “in easy-to-read format for people to navigate on the ground with,” Newell says. The team even provided map instructions and notes in French, thanks to a French-speaking student.

“We didn’t get a heck of a lot of sleep,” says Newell. “It wasn’t much of a long holiday weekend for us in the geography department.”

The lone undergraduate on the team, Maxwell Metcalfe (CAS’12), had just taken his first-ever GIS class.

“What better way to take a crash course,” says the physical geography major. “I’d been to one class, didn’t know anything about GIS. I thought I’d stop by and see if I could help out.”

Under the guidance of team member Michael Mann (GRS’08,’12), Metcalfe culled Google maps for street names, intersections, and landmarks, and helped make sure the grid sequences on the handheld maps Mann was producing followed the right order.

“I learned about the adaptability of the whole field and looking for the right information and all the uses of that information,” he says. “It’s much more satisfying actually working with a group on coming up with a solution instead of blindly giving money. I feel very lucky to have been drawn into a group like this.”

Mann agrees.

“The surprising thing is it takes really very little money to do profound work,” Mann says. “Literally, every single department at this school could easily contribute. There’s so much immediate need. Think about your services and skills, which in many instances are far greater than what you could give.”

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.

The BU delegation, which traveled to Haiti via the Dominican Republic, was on the ground in Port-au-Prince on Wednesday. BU Today editor Seth Rolbein is with them and spoke with WBUR. Hear his impressions here.


5 Comments on Mapping a Disfigured Port-au-Prince

  • Kerry on 01.22.2010 at 8:37 am

    Wonderful story!

    THIS is why I love working in higher education. Amazing insight, collaboration and creativity.

  • Anonymous on 01.22.2010 at 9:38 am

    So awesome and inspiring!

  • Cousin on 01.22.2010 at 5:33 pm

    My fave BU student helps Haiti

    Way to go, Cousin! That post-Katrina gig plus the great folks you work with over there at BU, it all makes for a better world. One data layer at a time.

  • Anonymous on 01.29.2010 at 9:15 am

    This story should be shared with the media! I’m so impressed with the willingness of these students to give their time and skills to help others in a time of need at a minutes notice. The technology is amazing.

  • John Kotecki on 03.04.2010 at 11:41 am

    Map of Port au Prince

    How can one obtain a hard copy of your map?

    Max size 36 inches by 36 inches…smaller o.k.
    Please advise for immediate purchase/delviery


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