Digital Disaster Relief: Crowdsourced Responses to Hurricanes, Earthquakes, and Floods Around the World

By: Lily Bui

In the brief span of two months, a series of disasters have swept across the globe. Hurricanes in the Gulf Coast and the Caribbean left homes, businesses, and streets flooded, disarmed power grids and basic services, and devastated the communities that rely on them. An earthquake in Mexico spurred mass evacuations and toppled buildings. Floods in South Asia killed thousands and shut millions of children out of school.

Critical to disaster response efforts after an incident is the gathering and sense-making of information. Crowdsourced mapping, data curation and analysis, social media monitoring, API development, and so on, provide an opportunity to people not living in these disaster areas another means of contributing to aid efforts.

Flooding in India. Credit: BMN Network (CC BY 2.0)

While emergency managers, first responders, and relief organizations respond on the ground, several non-profit organizations are helping to coordinate and support disaster response efforts online. And the good news is this: you can help.

Organizations like Humanitarian Open Street Map, GISCorps, Zooniverse, Humanity Road, and Code for America are looking for volunteers to get involved with digital disaster response. Below are some ways that you can participate.

Humanitarian OpenStreetMap (HOT)

Digital mappers can get involved by helping provide spatial information about the recent hurricanes, the earthquake in Mexico and floods in Bangladesh. Volunteers can help categorize and contribute crucial information about infrastructure damage and other at-risk areas.

Zooniverse Planetary Response Network

Zooniverse, a citizen science platform, offers a way for volunteers to help with disaster response efforts around the world by helping to rapidly assess pre- and post-hurricane satellite imagery to produce the best heat map possible of urgent priorities for response teams on the ground.

GISCorps: GIS Professionals Volunteering for A Better World

GISCorps coordinates short term, volunteer-based GIS services to underprivileged communities. If you are an experienced mapper, GIS or remote sensing specialist, please consider volunteering for GISCorps to help with disaster response and other projects around the world.

Texas National Guard Soldiers respond to the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Credit: Staff Sgt. Tim Pruitt (CC BY 2.0)

Code for America: Harvey Needs

Code for America’s Houston Brigade is organizing volunteers to map shelters, coordinate rescues, and clean out flooded homes in Houston during and after Hurricane Harvey. The Brigade, alongside volunteers around the country, is also shifting focus to Florida ahead of Hurricane Irma. They are currently working with Code for Miami, Code for Fort Lauderdale, and Code for Orlando; volunteers have created Irma Response, repurposing many of the tools used in Houston, including a hurricane shelter map and resources for volunteers looking for ways to help.

Want to help right now? Take a look at the Irma Tech Volunteer Onboarding guide and spread the word by sharing it with anyone you think can help as well.

Want to connect with other volunteers? Join the Irma Response Slack channel.

Science, technology, and policy alone may never be adequate enough to address all the risks that disaster poses, but communities can plan ahead, be informed, and contribute information to ongoing research for better preparedness efforts in the future.

September is Disaster Preparedness Month. Learn more at Want more citizen science? Check out SciStarter’s Project Finder! With 1100+ citizen science projects spanning every field of research, task and age group, there’s something for everyone!

Lily Bui is a PhD student in Urban Studies & Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her research focuses on disaster management and planning.

Categories: Citizen Science, Climate & Weather, Project Profile

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