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So far, the expats have helped mark 8,279 buildings in the world and map 51km of road, working over a span of 228 hours. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: Twenty five expatriates living in the UAE are working on a map of war and calamity-stricken areas of the world. The expats, aged between 25 and 30, comprises students, professionals and homemakers, have volunteered to help NGOs navigate in calamity and conflict zones.

So far, the expats have helped mark 8,279 buildings in the world and map 51km of road, working over a span of 228 hours.

Forum Shah, 21, one of the expats involved in the project, said the national sterilisation drive that kept everyone at home led her to take interest in the concept. “There was a lot of time in hand and little work to do. So I thought, why not offer my services for a larger cause?” said Shah, who works as an events manager for a private company in Dubai.

Mapping the world

Forum Shah

“Mapping cities aids volunteers on humanitarian missions navigate a city or island that is struck with a calamity or a natural disaster. Quite often, locating a building or finding the shortest route to reach a distressed location can be difficult. Besides, many parts of the world that are vulnerable to humanitarian crises such as natural disasters, epidemics or conflict are not mapped. NGOs currently have limited/no visibility to the situation on the ground. The aim is to touch these places,” said Shah.

Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT)

Another expat volunteer, Devang Jhabakh Jai, 18, a computer science undergraduate student at University of California, Berkeley, said: “We use a platform called Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT). The platform is dedicated to humanitarian action and community development through open mapping. HOT has an innovative solution to engage volunteers to digitally map the most vulnerable places in the developing world so that local and international NGOs can use them to navigate through these areas and better respond to a crisis situation. The volunteers helped map virtually the entire world.

Devang Jhabakh Jai

“There are more than 419,000 registered mappers who have helped map more than 88 million buildings in the world and over 2.2 million kilometres of roads across countries,” he explained.

The ultimate vision of HOT is to map the poverty-stricken areas of the world as well as countries at a high risk of disasters by engaging mappers around the world to massively grow the number of local edits to the map,” explained Jhabakh.

The journey

Shilpa Mehta, a homemaker who enjoyed doing every bit of her contribution to marking places and editing maps, said: “We started our mapping journey with a project in Clarendon, Jamaica. Suffering from the fallout of the fatal Atlantic Hurricane Season, Clarendon was an ‘URGENT’ marked task. Volunteers had to balance resource distribution and shelter management with social-distancing protocols in place. It was interesting working on Clarendon.

Shilpa Mehta

“We also mapped one of the most crises-prone areas of the developing world, Mindanao, an island in southern Philippines. Mindanao, which produces more than half the Philippines’ food, has poverty levels of 30-70 per cent. Conflict in the area has been increasing and that is why mapping the island was a high priority. We marked over 9,000 buildings combined and mapped over 130km of roads here.”

A snapshot of how mapping is done
Shah said there is a step-by-step process involved. “Remote volunteers trace maps over satellite pictures, using the tool OpenStreetMap, which is validated by remote experienced mappers. Community volunteers add local details such as neighbourhoods, street names and evacuation centres. Humanitarian organisations use mapped information to plan reduction and disaster response activities that save lives.”

Aerial images, GPS devices and field maps were used to collaborate. Besides Clarendon and Mindanao, UAE expats edited maps of Lares, Cusco, Ghanzi District-08, Botswana, Yelimane Cercle 5 — Kayes region, Mali and Kuma River, Kumamoto, Japan.

What next?

“We will launch the second phase of our mapping vision soon. We will continue to offer our voluntary service to help in calamity-stricken areas. As humans, this is the least we can do for mankind,” Shah said.