Can anything be done?

Earthquake response in Nepal

Earthquake response in Nepal

When we think about problems such as intolerance, economic justice, or climate change, should we focus on the local or the global? the short-term or the long-term? the social or the technical? Questions such as these recur in ways that often lead to discouragement, including the feeling that nothing can be done on any problem at any level.

Naomi Klein discussed this in last June’s College of the Atlantic commencement address, Climate Change Is a Crisis We Can Only Solve Together. She writes, “the very idea that we—as atomized individuals, even lots of atomized individuals—could play a significant part in stabilizing the planet’s climate system, or changing the global economy, is objectively nuts.” There must be “a large, organized, and focused movement.” And yet, she goes on to say, local activism is critical: It’s winning big fights, showing us what the future looks and feels like, and inspiring bigger examples. In short, we need both.

What Klein says makes a lot of sense. But it’s often hard to find examples that bridge between the local and the global, the immediate need and the needed long-term change, or between social and organizational work and technological fixes.

Open air mapping, when buildings were unsafe

Open air mapping, when buildings were unsafe

Yesterday at MIT, Nama Budhathoki gave an inspiring talk on the work of Kathmandu Living Labs. It was titled: Nepal’s Digital Innovation for Social Good: Looking Back to the April Earthquake. His project offers such an example.

KLL uses online mapping to address a wide variety of social challenges. This can be seen most dramatically in the timeline of KLL’s response to the April 25 earthquake in Nepal. For an excellent summary of their work, see Naomi Bloch’s article GIS & the Global Community: Humanitarian Mapping.

Through KLL, a farmer in a remote Nepalese village can integrate his local knowledge of a field or stream with that of an engineer at MIT. People in Nepal, despite their own challenges, can become among the largest contributors to relief efforts following Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. Detailed information about a school can be used to influence government policies and actions. This connecting across levels or communities is something many people talk about but few have shown how to achieve.

There are many reasons for KLL’s success, including the dedication of Nama and his team. But what also seems clear is that KLL offers remarkable models for how people can work together to achieve common good.

Quake in Nepal

KLL situation room

KLL situation room

A growing sense of despair spread through Katmandu on Sunday as the devastated Nepali capital was convulsed by aftershocks that sent residents screaming into the streets, where they were pelted by heavy rain. via Nepal Terrorized by Aftershocks, Hampering Relief Efforts –

The situation in Nepal sounds awful. Nature in the form of aftershocks and rain, is conspiring with poverty and political discord to make a dire situation.

I know several people there, including some former students, and am relieved that so far they’re doing OK.

I’ve also been impressed with the work of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team [HOT], which acts as a bridge between the traditional humanitarian responders and the OpenStreetMap community. Nama Budhathoki, a former student and friend, works with Kathmandu Living Labs and HOT to provide vital information, first about the road network and then about buildings. The Tasking Manager is a tool they designed to coordinate these efforts. It helps to divide up a mapping job into smaller tasks that can be completed rapidly.

The photo, taken from the KLL Facebook page, shows the situation room with Nama on the right.

Yandex Probki

Keith Gessen has an interesting article about Moscow’s horrible traffic, Letter from Moscow, “Stuck,” in The New Yorker (August 2, 2010, p. 24).

Among other things, he describes Yandex Probki (Яндекс.Карты), an excellent example of a user-created map, which shows Moscow traffic patterns in real time. The site’s content comes, not from webcams or pavement sensors, neither of which would both practical there, but from GPS-enabled smartphones. Users send in descriptions from their own situations.

You can get a sense of the site from this video below, but you can also explore the map itself and get a sense of the enormity of the traffic jams, even if you don’t read Russian.

New FEMA flood maps are full of errors

In 2004, the Federal Emergency Management Agency began a $200 million/year flood map project using mapping technology (GIS/GPS) to identify areas susceptible to flooding. The goal was to mitigate future catastrophes like the flood in Iowa, which caused $10 billion of damage.

But critics, including civic leaders, developers and home owners in several states, have complained that the new maps are riddled with inaccuracies, seem arbitrarily drawn, and will stifle growth and hurt property values…Doug Boyer, whose home would be in the flood plain for the first time if FEMA’s Oakville map gains final approval, said it’s inexplicable why FEMA extended the flood plain border to the center of Main Street in the relatively flat town. “The east side is in the flood plain and the west side is fine — it’s odd that the water will stop at Main Street.” FEMA flood maps are full of errors, cities say

Property owners naturally have a vested interest in what the new maps say. Nevertheless, it’s easy to sympathize with Boyers wonderment at why the water would stop at Main Street. This seems like a good argument for the incorporation of user-generated content in the production of maps, or what’s called Volunteered Geographic Information, as in a forthcoming issue of Geomatica.

hear you are — [murmur]

murmur[murmur] is a documentary oral history project that records stories and memories told about specific geographic locations. We collect and make accessible people’s personal histories and anecdotes about the places in their neighborhoods that are important to them. In each of these locations we install a [murmur] sign with a telephone number on it that anyone can call with a mobile phone to listen to that story while standing in that exact spot, and engaging in the physical experience of being right where the story takes place. Some stories suggest that the listener walk around, following a certain path through a place, while others allow a person to wander with both their feet and their gaze…

All our stories are available on the [murmur] website, but their details truly come alive as the listener walks through, around, and into the narrative. By engaging with [murmur], people develop a new intimacy with places, and “history” acquires a multitude of new voices. The physical experience of hearing a story in its actual setting – of hearing the walls talk – brings uncommon knowledge to common space, and brings people closer to the real histories that make up their world.

Being cellphone-impaired, and far from Toronto, I’m reduced to listening to the stories on the website, but they still convey a sense of the city and its history. The site’s a well-designed example of integrating oral history, geographic information systems, and mobile phones.