Rutgers ‘map-a-thon’ aids relief efforts in Puerto Rico

Rutgers professor Mary Rizzo is mapping southeast Puerto Rico, a part of the U.S. territory where Hurricane Maria left an unprecedented need for help.

“What we’re doing is very simple but it really helps the rescue workers,” said Rizzo. “I have to say, I was surprised when I started looking at this at how little mapping has been done in much of Puerto Rico, especially in the rural areas.”

Last Friday, Rizzo, who is also associate director of the school’s public and digital humanities initiatives, co-organized Rutgers joining other universities in a “map-a-thon.”

“This is such a devastating crisis that I wanted to try to find something that I could do that I could use my skills for to help in some possible way,” said Rizzo. “When we saw how slow the efforts of our government were to getting help to Puerto Ricans, it seemed like we needed to do something and step in and help wherever we could.”

Students and professors on laptops gathered in libraries, using the aerial images and data of Puerto Rico through the site Open Street Map to collect information about buildings and roads and more. In a demonstration, Rizzo clicked on and highlighted a building, searched for information about it and then shared that information for vetting and validation to add to global positioning system maps. It’s images and intel to inform and to benefit relief workers.

“It’s a little bit of a process, but it is something that needs to happen,” continued Rizzo.

While this activity was a first for many at Rutgers, it wasn’t for New Jersey Red Cross Disaster Support Functions Director Michael Prasad. He showed traffic-jammed roads in Puerto Rico in real time. He’s been mapping for two years, applying layers of information for non-emergencies.

Prasad recalled mapping in a real emergency — spring 2016 flooding in Texas.

“With the mapping, you’re able to look at areas that you don’t normally see because you’re not actually there looking or focusing, or you’re not necessarily listening to this group of people or that group of people. You’re seeing the entire picture,” said Prasad.

Prasad laughed about what life was like before high-tech mapping: paper maps, Post-Its and Magic Marker drawings on a wall.

“It meant three things. Number one, it’s only as good as the information people are putting in. Two, the really big problem — it’s only there on that one wall. And three, of course, most importantly, it had no connection to what was happening, what was live. It was as dynamic as people were updating it. But, that was back when we were doing Sandy, for example, initially it was those kinds of mappings,” he said.

The mapping from long distance raises a question: what difference is it making? Is it saving lives on the ground in Puerto Rico?

“It’s not as direct as someone on the ground who is going to reach out and pull someone out of a house, for example, who’s been there for days or give someone a bottle of water that’s thirsty. But we rely so much on technology these days and we rely on maps that tell us where we are and who is where, that not having good information is detrimental to the folks who are trying to get to people on the ground,” said Rizzo.

Rizzo said mapping is easy and literally at your fingertips.