NEW YORK — Satellite images of rural outposts and grooved mountainsides dominated the computer screens inside a room in New York City, where more than 60 volunteers sat. One woman huddled over her laptop, carefully watching a thick red square bloom from the pen tool as she traced over a building.
The group had assembled Friday at Columbia University's Butler Library for a three-hour mapathon, a tech-based response to the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico, where Hurricane Maria ripped out entire buildings, roads and power sources, resulting in logistical chaos on the ground.
Maps can show a hidden weakness during natural disasters. In remote areas, where forces often wreak the greatest devastation, entire villages may have never made it onto a map. That could be because private companies, which hold the rights to their maps, have less incentive to include those areas, or because the government does not have the resources for frequent updates to existing maps. Even when a region is mapped, changes in neighborhoods could alter the landscape drastically in less than a year.
Juan Francisco Saldarriaga, an adjunct professor at Columbia who was one of the organizers of the mapathon, was shocked by the extent that Puerto Rico, despite being a U.S. territory, still lacked accurate data by the time Hurricane Maria struck.
"A lot of buildings in the Caribbean islands haven't been mapped," said Saldarriaga, who specializes in architecture and urban planning. "In New York, I tell my students that we're spoiled by the amount of data we have for our city."
The likelihood of being "on the map" can be crudely gauged by something that Dale Kunce, senior geospatial engineer at the American Red Cross, calls "the Starbucks test." He said as long as someone can navigate to the nearest Starbucks on their smartphone, their location is likely accounted for in databases such as Google Maps.
"A map is foundational to a person's being, almost," Kunce said. "If you're on the map, if your building, street, neighborhood exists, you exist. And you have a voice."
Alex Gil, Columbia's digital scholarship coordinator, was another one of the organizers. Most of the volunteers at the mapathon — hosted by Columbia's Group for Experimental Methods in the Humanities and Columbia University Libraries — were new to cartography, working in conjunction with similar sessions at five other universities across the nation.
"It was heartbreaking," Gil said of the destruction in Puerto Rico and of watching the lag in getting aid to the island. "That's when I hoped the global community can help out."
To create the crowdsourced maps, the groups employed the OpenStreetMap platform, which has been called the Wikipedia of mapping because of its open-source format, meaning anyone can modify or contribute to a project. Organizers collaborated with the nonprofit Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, which uses the open-sourced data tool to create maps for charitable causes.
With its headquarters in Washington, D.C., the team usually works with nonprofits and government bodies requesting services for disaster relief. In Puerto Rico, that is the American Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, both past clients.
Kunce, who also leads the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, is currently stationed in Puerto Rico. Every night, before leaving his office, he downloads and prints out copies of crowdsourced maps for emergency medical workers.
To create them, volunteers follow a simple process: Each mapmaker is allotted a square of territory. Mappers then look at satellite imagery and outline key geographic landmarks. For Columbia's project, the focus was buildings. Once another user verifies the work, the completed map layer goes live, available to anyone with internet access.
Since the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team was founded in 2010, its volunteers have charted previously unmapped villages in countries from Malawi to North Korea, placing an uncounted 45 million people on a map, said Rebecca Firth, the community partnerships manager. As of Friday, 1,200 OpenStreetMap users have contributed to mapping Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria, outlining 205,000 buildings and 4,474 miles of road.
"Traditionally people viewed mapping as very expensive and professional," Firth said. "We've proven a bunch of volunteers with a small amount of training can create something that is nearly as good as something you pay millions for."
At the Columbia event, Latin music thrummed in the background, as friends conversed with each other in Spanish, and a group of volunteers held a prolonged discussion with one of the facilitators about the deeper intricacies of mapmaking.
Saldarriaga, a native of Colombia, credits part of the rising popularity of open-sourced mapping to the intrinsic joy of building something. Mapping Puerto Rico was special to him, he said.
"We speak the same language, and so it's sad to hear that people close to you are suffering that much," he said. "But when you're just tracing buildings and mapping roads, achieving a great amount in a couple of hours, it's a little bit like therapy."