Crowdsourced mapping is being used to locate earthquake victims in Nepal

Diffuse online networks get a lot of flack and not without justification. They can, however, serve useful purposes. In the wake of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, laypeople poured over satellite images in search of unusual objects floating on the ocean’s surface. Now, as CityLab’s Aarian Marshall reports, the crowdsourcing platform is being used to track the damage from last Saturday’s 7.8-magnitude earthquake in Nepal. 

An algorithm discovers which areas are in need of the most help. 

The tool in question is Tomnod, a crowdsourcing platform made by DigitalGlobe. It allows users to tag items on satellite images. “Over 16,500 volunteers have used the Tomnod platform to compare the new satellite images with the old, placing 74,000 tags on major destruction areas, damaged roads, and ravaged homes,” Marshall writes. “Their crowdsourced data is plugged into an algorithm that identifies frequent tag agreements to discover which areas are in need of the most help.”

Beyond the Nepalese earthquake, Tomnod is currently running a variety of campaigns spanning most continents and a range of human and natural catastrophes. Some are admittedly more popular than others. To wit, Marshall reports, “The Nepal campaign has seen just 0.2 percent of the total volunteers of the Flight 370 campaign, though it’s still too early for a final engagement tally.” 

For all the technological promise that underpins Tomnod, this form of crowdsourcing is actually a throwback to early mapping efforts. In 1763, a man by the name of Johann Gottlieb Beckmann set out to map Saxony’s forests. His goal, writes Tim Harford, was to “calculate the exploitable resource.” To that end, he sent men on walks through the forests with nails of different colours. The nails’ colours corresponded to different kinds of trees. The men were told to hammer an appropriately-coloured nail into each tree they passed. As Harford put it in his series Pop-Up Ideas:  “When the men had finished their walk through the forest, they gathered together. The nails that remained could be counted. What Johann Gottlieb Beckmann had found was the number of different trees of different sizes in that area of forests.”

This, in effect, is what Tomnod is now attempting to do. This confluence of old and new techniques is indicative of how mapping has changed since the 18th century: We no longer need squads of farmers to collect data but crowds are sometimes needed to process the resulting glut of information. “Professional mappers are already volunteering to map Nepal’s devastated areas through the open-source mapping platform OpenStreetMap,” Marshall notes. “Their more sophisticated skill sets give them a better chance to help humanitarians on the ground, and more quickly.” Yet crowdsourcing—whether amongst laypeople or professionals—appears to be here to stay. As the story of Johann Gottlieb Beckmann reminds us, this may have always been the case.