On My Mind: Tech, Crisis Response, Maps, Crowd-Sourcing

I’ve been having some interesting talks with my friend Ben Mengden lately. He graduated with a Geography degree, has been delving into architecture over the past few years, and is really interested in the developing world and how those disciplines can be applied there. I have a deeply rooted interest in computing, the Internet, and how new technology can be applied to and change our lives for the better. Lately, our fields of study have started overlapping in some really interesting ways.

I love Wikipedia. As Clay Shirky discusses in his fascinating book Here Comes Everybody, sites like Wikipedia harness the power of tens of thousands of people willing to spend 5 minutes to improve something. There aren’t many people who will write an exhaustive article on a subject. There are, however, plenty of people who will be happy to add a sentence or two, contribute a photo, or exercise their pedantic tendencies and fix a bit of grammar. As a result, Wikipedia, while not academically authoritative, has a body of knowledge that is vast, immensely useful, surprisingly well-referenced, and pretty much unprecedented in human history.

Thus I was delighted to discover OpenStreetMap, an effort to bring that same community information-building ethos to mapping. After having been locked into the fixed, licensed data that MapQuest, Google Maps and Yahoo Maps provided, it was pretty amazing to be able to whack the “Edit” button and add speed limit data to my street, to remove roads and points of interest that weren’t accurate, and to make a note of the various playgrounds around town. When my wife and I went to Switzerland last year, we were able to load up our GPS with free OpenStreetMap data before we left, saving us a substantial sum.

But better than that, OpenStreetMap has been enabling people around the world to share geographic data in unprecedented ways. When the recent devastating earthquake struck Haiti, crisis response teams were able to collaborate with government agencies, volunteer translators and mapmakers around the world by using OpenStreetMap and other crowd-sourced crisis response systems like Ushahidi as clearinghouses for information on survivors, refugee camps, water supplies, road conditions, and more. (See this video for more details, or this one for details on how you can help map roads.)

In addition, Ben has been exploring Architecture for Humanity, a humanitarian organization dedicated to providing professional architectural design services to folks in need. They have created the Open Architecture Network, a service dedicated to open source architecture that allows architects and designers to share their plans and designs in CAD form over the Internet. Thus, builders helping to rebuild regions devastated by natural disasters now have access to a wealth of professionally designed building plans, and can even have custom plans created by an architect far from the site of the crisis. And get this: efforts are well underway to create gigantic 3D printers that can take plans and build a house from them automatically under computer control in a couple of days.

My wife laughs at my because I drive around with our GPS on even when I know where I’m going. “It makes me feel like I’m living in the Science Fiction future,” I tell her. But even more than having a robot voice tell me where to turn, being able to reach out across the Internet and help people half a world away makes me really excited to be living in this era of technological wonders.