29 Sep

Company Spotlight: Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT)

By Samantha Hinton

In 2010, Haiti experienced one of the world’s most catastrophic earthquakes, with impacts still lingering today. Although it only lasted 30 seconds, the 7.0 magnitude earthquake killed an estimated 200,000 people. Last month, in August 2021, another devastating 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti. When humanitarian disasters occur, aid workers, medical providers, and others rush to the scene to provide aid where necessary. But what happens when the place is only partially mapped, or worse, not mapped at all? Over the past decade, mapping and geography communities have been stepping up to offer their skills to humanitarian efforts as well.

Motivated by the crisis in Haiti in 2010, OpenStreetMap (OSM) enthusiasts and humanitarians came together to found the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT), with the vision of mobilizing volunteers to contribute to OSM to increase relief workers’ access to geo data. This data is critically important to first responders who need to quickly locate victims to distribute supplies and medical care.

The American Geographical Society (AGS) had the chance to speak with HOT’s Senior Communications Manager, Gihan Hassanein, to learn more about their important work.

Since its founding, HOT’s international teams have continued to provide support to humanitarian aid efforts while also supporting longer-term community development projects through the power of OSM and other open mapping tools. OSM was created to allow anyone to contribute to and access its free open maps and geographic data – contributors often describe it as the Wikipedia of world maps.

Across all AGS platforms, we stress the importance of mapping and geographic analysis as tools for understanding and reducing inequality and visualizing solutions to global problems. However, in many low and middle-income countries, geographic data, especially in a digital format, is often inadequate. HOT’s vision is a world where ‘everyone is counted.’ HOT teams and OSM volunteers around the world input local geographic data and information into OpenStreetMap to help communities and governments improve humanitarian responses, manage disasters, provide better services to residents, and support economic development.

Tanzanian university students receive training on open geospatial skills and collect data to support flood preparedness in Dar es Salaam through HOT’s Ramani Huria program. Ramani Huria means “open map” in Swahili.

In 2020, HOT became one of just eight organizations chosen to be part of The Audacious Project. The Audacious Project is a highly selective and collaborative funding initiative that supports social justice efforts on a grand scale. While HOT has always engaged with the global OSM community, support from The Audacious Project has given the organization the means to invest more deeply and sustainably in its community engagement activities. Under The Audacious Project, HOT plans to mobilize one million volunteers to map an area home to one billion people in 94 countries at high risk of natural disaster or experiencing poverty.

In the past year, HOT has launched two new Regional Open Mapping Hubs to further support local OSM communities. These hubs will be semi-autonomous, and the first two are located in Eastern and Southern Africa and Asia-Pacific regions (HOT’s staff work around the globe, but the official headquarters is in Washington, D.C.). Over the next year, HOT will also launch hubs in West and Northern Africa, as well as Latin American and the Caribbean. The Open Mapping Hubs are designed to inspire and mobilize people to engage in open mapping activities locally, because development and humanitarian challenges are not uniform across the world. The Regional Open Mapping Hubs will enable decentralized and localized decision-making, and resource allocation can amplify the issues of communities in local contexts.

The Open Mapping Hub – Asia Pacific, led by Dr. Nama Budhathoki, will work with mapping communities in 25 countries in the region to recognize and amplify the work they are already doing. Monica Nthiga is the Regional Director of the Open Mapping Hub – Eastern and Southern Africa. This hub will promote open mapping activities in 23 countries across the region. Both hubs are dedicated to facilitating local solutions and producing meaningful open mapping data that are free and publicly accessible to everyone.

One notable project by HOT was its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. From the start of the pandemic until early 2021, HOT coordinated the most extensive crisis mapping activation in its history. HOT and its partners identified at-risk populations and mobilized over 26,000 volunteers to map in OpenStreetMap. HOT was also able to fund local mapping groups in communities in need via Rapid Response Emergency Microgrants. The resulting data helped support aid workers, health workers and governments by mapping health facilities, facilitating contact tracing, delivering supplies and equipment, and more. For example, HOT provided funding to Map Kibera, an NGO serving Kenya’s largest informal settlement, to track and visualize COVID hotspots, suspected cases, and public health services (shown below).

The Kenya COVID-19 Tracker, developed by Map Kibera with support from HOT’s rapid response microgrants program.

Shifting from an organization primarily focused on mapping in response to natural disasters, HOT has experienced significant growth with more partnerships and support to more longer-term development work. They believe in leveling the playing field and supporting local communities to map what is important to them. Hassanein says “it’s a really beautiful thing” to see people put what matters to them on a map.

Visit HOT’s website and to learn more about HOT and their work and subscribe to their monthly newsletter to learn about upcoming events and opportunities and keep up to date with their projects.

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Learn more about easy ways to help with development and humanitarian response efforts here.