Archive for January, 2010

Haiti Crisis Map Effort

Posted in default on January 29th, 2010 at 17:38:31

One of the most difficult thigns to do in time of disaster is to quickly organize, marshal, and present resources. This applies across all aspects of disaster response — whether it be managing and distributing food, organizing volunteers, or setting up technical resources to assist with the relief effort.

The last is the field I obviously have the most experience/ability to help with, especially with regard to mapping. In past situations, I have put some of my map expertise to work in helping to create a resource for the disaster; the last significant case for me was in 2007, when I managed a ton of imagery made available as part of the efforts with regard to the San Diego wildfires. (That map is still available, though it’s a bit worse for the wear at this point.)

When the Haiti Crisis happened, I let it slide; I figured that someone else would step up to manage the data this time. After a while, though, I saw an increased number of imagery sources, and little coherent organization of the resources by a single party — one of the key things that made the 2007 fires map successful. As a result, and combined with some data that was being more narrowly published, I decided to set up a map. The first day I did any significant work on this was over the weekend of the 15th.

At first, the map wasn’t particularly great; it was primarily just a tool to view a bunch of satellite data that was being made available. This was primarily just a quality control check for users of OSM who needed access to the data to complete the map of Haiti. Over time, more data became available — and more importantly, the OpenStreetMap map data became a primary map for the area and rescue efforts. Suddenly, the Haiti Crisis Map — then just the “UAV map” — was being used more and more.

As more and more data became available, the old map, using a simple OpenLayers layer switcher, became unwieldy; never a user-friendly layout to begin with, adding 20 layers to an OpenLayers map with an unplanned mix of base and overlay layers leaves much to be desired.

By Wednesday, it was clear that the hodge-podge of available disk space attached to the hosting machine wasn’t going to cut it; though we started with just over 4TB available spread over 3 different drives, managing the data was becoming unwieldy at the same rate as the UI. Thankfully, by Wednesday the 20th, John Graham was able to get access to another Sun X4500 and set it up, giving us a clean 16TB drive to put new and old imagery on. (About 6 hours later, the NFS machine to which all of the current data was stored began to fail, most likely due to heavier than normal load on the machine; I spent most of that day moving data off the old drive and onto the new.)

In addition to the data migration, at this time, Aaron Racicot was able to step up and offer his help in building a GeoExt based UI for the map. His efforts turned my hack into a reasonable UI for browsing the map, and it is really only because of that that I was able to keep going.

Over the weekend, at CrisisCamp, I was able to add additional features to support Ushahidi; the code was moved into Github, haitibrowser. In the middle of this week, the code was integrated into APAN, the All Partners Access Network, to support the efforts of SOUTHCOM in maintaining a high quality Central Operating Picture of events in the area.

Over the past two weeks, data has continued to pour in, in the hundreds of gigabytes a day. This is in part thanks to the wonderful availability of imagery thanks to the generosity of the commercial providers, in addition to the data made available by organizations like NOAA, companies like Google, and more. The extremely high quality imagery produced by RIT/ImageCat/WorldBank, for example, is an example of what is possible with the hard work of people with great hardware and a great team.

Using my knowledge — gleaned from my efforts in the earlier days of OpenAerialMap — I have been able to process this data and make it available as tiles and WMS to all consumers, primarily targeted towards OpenStreetMap editors. Over two dozene layers are available via what is now called the Haiti Crisis Map, each one adding a different viewpoint of data. In addition, the map contains links to other files like KML collections from Ushahidi and Sahana, and as recently as yesterday, gained the ability to create your own layers, which you can access in the map and provide as a link to someone else, as well as export as KML.

As part of the process of making the site more readily available, it is now available from

The most difficult part of this is attempting to manage the large sources of data. Thankfully, the resources that I have available have allowed me to be a bit lax in my conservation of disk space, CPU time, etc. Many thanks to CalIT, SDSU/SDSC, and Telascience for organizing these resources. In addition, a lot of the ‘hard work’ in the UI has been done by Aaron Racicot of Z-Pulley. I’ve done a lot of minor work, but the major UI layout and work has been done by him.

Thankfully, I’ve had the support of a lot of good people in this effort, and a lot of good tools to use. Using GDAL + OSSIM in the background for image processing, MapServer + TileCache for mosaicing and serving, OpenLayers + GeoExt for a UI, and OSM for a base map data layer have all made this effort possible.

The haiticrisismap will continue to see improvements. It shows a lot about what a dedicated small group of people can do with an investment when properly motivated; I can honestly say that because of the resources made available through these efforts, we have saved lives. Whether it is through maps produced through OSM being loaded onto Volunteer GPS systems, or the use of the data to determine an accurate location in a map by Ushahidi volunteers, this tool has been an effective aid to the relief effort in Haiti, and will continue to do so as much as is possible in the coming days and weeks.