When I first heard about OpenStreetMap (OSM) – the so called Wikipedia of maps, built by volunteers around the world – I was skeptical of its ability to scale, usability in decision making, and ultimate longevity among new ideas conceived in the digital age. Years later, having working on many disaster risk management initiatives across the globe, I can say that I am a passionate advocate for the power of this community. And I continue to be struck by the power of one small initiative like OSM that brings together people across cultures and countries to save lives. It is more than a technology or a dataset, it’s a global community of individuals committed to making a difference.
People may be surprised to find that the maps we take for granted in metropolitan areas of the developed world may be completely absent, vastly out of date, or pay-per-view in the developing world. Imagine an urban area without a transportation network, government agencies without access to the location of their assets (schools, health facilities, etc), or even a map without village names. This is the reality for many of the countries most vulnerable to disaster risk. Now, imagine this urban area facing an unprecedented crisis brought by flooding, an earthquake, a pandemic – think about the challenges of planning a response.