The Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team in Indonesia: Saving Lives through Data Preparedness

by Sindhunata Hargyono

For years, OpenStreetMap has provided online spatial information about infrastructure networks around the world, and several years ago, the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) was created to map out disaster-prone areas. In Indonesia, HOT has been particularly effective—not only in pinpointing areas that are vulnerable to disasters, but also in integrating local communities into the map-making process.

The results have been encouraging. Using HOT-provided information, humanitarian responders, and disaster management agencies are better able to mitigate the effects of natural disasters and save lives.

When it was created, OpenStreetMap was an ambitious project to create a free and open-source map of the entire world. It was—and still is—built entirely by volunteers. They conduct GPS surveys, digitize aerial and satellite imagery, and collect open-source geographic data and make it available to the wider public. As Steve Coast, the founder, put it: “OpenStreetMap is the Wikipedia of maps.”

Needless to say, information is invaluable to humanitarian responders when disasters or crises occur, particularly in more remote areas where spatial information is lacking. Without it, it is difficult to know how many people need assistance—and just as importantly where those people are. In recognition of that, OpenStreetMap created a new department to focus on humanitarian mapping in 2010. This initiative became HOT, and the new outfit served as a bridge between traditional humanitarian responders and the OpenStreetMap community.

So far it has been a mutually beneficial relationship. By building databases and maps from open source data and volunteers’ efforts, HOT members can help humanitarian workers in the field respond to various kinds of disasters and crises around the world.

However, to be really effective, HOT realized early on that it needed to collect data before a disaster occurred. If it did not do so, HOT would have to scramble to find data during a crisis, and it would not be able to provide humanitarian responders with spatial information as quickly as they would need it.

For the HOT team working in Indonesia, then, the major question became: “Can OpenStreetMap be used to map exposure?”

To clarify, exposure is a measure of features, such as roads and buildings, that can be damaged during a natural disaster or crisis. When that information is combined with other factors—the population of a given place, for example—it is possible to predict where disaster-prone areas are located, and humanitarian workers can be better prepared to respond if and when that disaster occurs.

Back in 2011, obtaining that information about vulnerable areas was crucial, according to Kate Chapman, HOT’s Executive Director, and the HOT team quickly set about identifying different exposure areas in Indonesia.

During the first nine months, HOT conducted trainings in fifteen locations ranging from big cities to small villages to encourage Indonesians to chart their home areas in OpenStreetMap, so that humanitarian workers would have more accurate exposure data in the event of a disaster.

Three and a half years later, HOT has mapped two million buildings in Indonesia—an exceptional achievement particularly given the fact that most of it was done by volunteer mappers and surveyors.

Several Local Disaster Management Agencies (BPBDs) in Indonesia have already used that information. One of them is BPBD DKI Jakarta, which is currently using OpenStreetMap to map out the flood-prone areas in the city, as well as important public facilities.

But HOT is not only working with Disaster Management Agencies. To make a more long-term impact, the organization is also working at the local level to encourage Indonesians to independently contribute to OpenStreetMap.

One such effort has been the University Roadshow program. Started in 2014, the program provided training workshops at thirteen universities throughout Indonesia for hundreds of students. The students who succeed in passing the HOT workshop received OpenStreetMap surveyor certificates. Their names were given to the Local Disaster Management Agency, and now they can map out and update exposure data in their areas.

With more information, humanitarian responders and disaster management agencies are better able to anticipate how natural disasters will affect a given area, and in Jakarta they have done just that, using HOT’s spatial data to better protect Indonesian citizens from annual flooding. Ultimately, improved preparedness will save lives in Indonesia and around the world.

About the Author

Sindhunata Hargyono is a former Communication Specialist with the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (Jakarta, Indonesia). In 2013, he earned his bachelor's degree in Social Anthropology from Universitas Indonesia. Recently, he was awarded an opportunity to study history at Northwestern University as a nondegree graduate student with an Arryman Fellowship. His research interests include web 2.0 culture, globalization, as well as oppressed and marginalized groups.

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