Mapping and the power of the crowd: Peace Corps' response to disaster in Vanuatu

By Courtney Clark
April 3, 2015

Peace Corps has been experimenting with a new form of international development and civic engagement: OpenStreetMap, the wiki map of the world and authoritative source of geographic information in times of crisis

The map's invaluable data about the world’s geography is completely crowd-sourced, meaning that anyone, anywhere can contribute their local knowledge or mapping skills -- and anyone, anywhere can use the data. OpenStreetMap truly is a map for and by "the people."

If we surveyed Peace Corps Volunteers today, most would confirm that a digital map of their host community does not exist. This lack of digital maps in developing countries creates logistical nightmares when a crisis such as Ebola or Cyclone Pam strikes. Since the 2010 Haiti earthquake, developing country governments and aid organizations have relied on OpenStreetMap in times of crisis to help them navigate to affected areas, identify shelters, plan supply shipments and prepare for future natural disasters or epidemics. It takes time, however, to enter all that geographic data about the world's roads, buildings and natural features -- and that is where Peace Corps comes in.

Peace Corps' Office of Innovation has been hard at work training Peace Corps Volunteers, invitees, staff, Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, friends of Peace Corps and students in OpenStreetMap. These groups map countries affected by disaster but also more stable areas where current Peace Corps programs have requested a digital map for use in a Volunteer project. It is okay that many contributors have never been to the countries they map. Thanks to OpenStreetMap's high-quality satellite imagery, mappers can use a simple web tool to trace over imagery of buildings and roads.

On March 23, Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of Washington (RPCV/W) and the Office of Innovation hosted a two-hour mapping event to respond to disaster caused by Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu and the South Pacific. Forty-seven Peace Corps Volunteers, Trainees, Returned PCVs, staff and friends of Peace Corps mapped the entire nations of Tuvalu and Kiribati and made substantial contributions to a digital map of Vanuatu. RPCVs who served in Vanuatu shared their experiences as Volunteers and post-disaster updates that meant more than any news article could. They also joined current Vanuatu Volunteers and Trainees, who connected via Google Hangout, in adding their local knowledge of Vanuatu to the map by identifying schools and other potential shelters and communication towers.

Americans typically support Volunteers in the field and Peace Corps countries through donations to grant funds or disaster relief funds. Donations remain a critically important resource, but OpenStreetMap opens up an entirely new way for Americans to play a direct role in both Peace Corps projects and disaster relief efforts.  We hope that you'll join us in mapping the world by learning how to map with the State Department's excellent tutorials and contributing to Peace Corps mapping projects.

The Office of Innovation is always looking for opportunities to collaborate with RPCV and country-of-service groups. If you would like to host a mapping event, please email me at [email protected].

Courtney Clark