FAIRBANKS — Two groups at the University of Alaska Fairbanks teamed up this week to participate in an international effort to electronically map previously uncharted areas of Puerto Rico in hopes of helping emergency personnel responding to the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
The Geographic Information Network of Alaska and Alaska EPSCoR — Established Programming to Stimulate Competitive Research — organized a three-day Map-a-thon, inviting university students and members of the public to join in using online mapping technology to provide assistance to hurricane relief workers.
“After the hurricane, we were thinking, well, what can we do to help and lend support, and we thought, ‘Well, we’re good at making maps,’” said Tania Clucas, education, outreach and diversity manager for Alaska EPSCoR.
As part of the project, volunteers reviewed and selected from a task list, maintained by the group Humanitarian OpenStreetMaps, identifying features and labeling them using web-based geospatial tools.
Clucas said this was an easy way for Alaskans to help from where they are.
“We’re off on this side of the continent and they’re over there, but we still wanted to help,” Clucas said. “And we’ve done some Map-a-Thons before, and they needed maps. It’s pretty easy for us to open up the space and work remotely and provide support from a distance.”
OpenStreetMaps works similarly to Google Maps in the sense that it provides satellite images of areas of land to illustrate infrastructure and natural elements. The issue that the teams have been trying to address is that much of the satellite imagery of Puerto Rico has not been mapped, which keeps emergency personnel on the ground from being able to identify what used to be in a place before it was destroyed.
According to Clucas, the Red Cross is asking that people mark buildings, roads and other structures to help emergency personnel in Puerto Rico see where structures might have been prior to the hurricane. This helps workers locate damaged gas lines, electrical lines and people who may be lost or trapped.
“There are not accurate, current, electronic maps for the emergency response groups,” Clucas said. “If you have people who are coming in and trying to deal with getting the power back up for example, these people need to know where buildings were. They come into an area that’s just been completely devastated and with the maps they can be like, ‘So that pile of rubble was a building and that wasn’t.’”
The UAF groups were mapping on a series of large screens in the Decision Theater North, located in the basement of the West Ridge Research Building. On one screen, a larger map of all of Puerto Rico could be seen. On the screen next to it, a section of the map was peppered with green, orange and white boxes.
Green meant the area has been mapped and validated, orange meant it had been mapped but was waiting for validation, and all of the checked boxes in white were areas that needed to be mapped, said Vanessa Raymond, project manager for the Geographic Information Network of Alaska.
“They’ve divided up the area in question,” Raymond said. “So just a few days ago, when we first started the Map-a-Thon, we were working on that area right around that dam that was about to go.”
OpenStreetMaps provides directions for users on how to outline buildings and identify structures and provides maps at varying levels of difficultly so everyone can help as they are able.
“It gives them a tool to use where they didn’t have anything before,” Clucas said.
Raymond said it was the ideal way for the university to lend assistance.
“It’s the perfect blend of helping in something that really needs to be done, it uses our expertise, and we can train students or other people to learn knew skills,” Raymond said. “So for a university to be able to contribute to the common good and also be doing something educational I feel like is great.”
Raymond said some of the volunteers were students from UAF’s Geography Department.
“It’s great that they’re using what they’re learning in class to help people in the real world when it’s needed. That felt really good,” Raymond said.
Contact staff writer Erin Granger at 459-7544. Follow her on Twitter:@FDNMPolitics.