How Miami University Is Helping Dorian Relief By Mapping The Bahamas

Sep 9, 2019

Relief and recovery efforts in the Bahamas are hampered by the sheer devastation of Hurricane Dorian. Entire communities are gone and roadways disappeared, making it difficult for responders to even know where to look or go.

Miami University students and geographic information systems (GIS) professionals around the Tri-State are helping from a distance by using an online mapping software to identify where buildings and roadways once stood.

"The idea is there are a lot of satellite images but no record of the actual shape or size of these houses," says Justin Fain, a researcher with Miami's Geospatial Analysis Center. "What we do is look at the satellite imagery and draw boxes around the rooftops and across roads. That way, even if it's underwater, we know where the house used to be, where the road should be, and the rescue and recovery units can use this information to target places where they know people might be trapped or where people might be found."

A participant uses her mouse to mark red boxes around structures captured on satellite images taken before Hurricane Dorian hit Great Abaco Island.
Credit Scott Kissell / Miami University

The "Bahamas Mapathon" began Friday. It was organized at the request of a Miami graduate who lives in and is from the Bahamas. Ancilleno Davis earned his Ph.D. in December 2018 and works as a sustainability coordinator on Blue Lagoon Island, about three miles from the Bahamian capital of Nassau.

"I am trying to get the data on who has been rescued and where they came from," Davis told those gathered in a Miami computer lab via Skype. While he talked, the soft click of computer mice resounded around the room as participants drew little red boxes around buildings on fuzzy satellite maps.

"Our islands, obviously they were not mapped well before this and so this is something that we have to work on. The collaborations that are coming out of it ... unfortunately a lot of us are finding workarounds for a lot of issues with bureaucracy like this OpenStreetMapping activity that we're doing."

Ancilleno Davis, Ph.D., talks with participants via Skype from the Bahamas where he's using their data to assist relief efforts.
Credit Scott Kissell / Miami University

OpenStreetMap is an open source software that lets people update a variety of mapping information. Since it's an open platform, you can see what other people have done so as not to duplicate efforts. GIS professionals can verify the information added is correct, and Mapathon participants were instructed to mark a special box requesting their additions be checked by a professional to ensure no bad data is passed along to responders, potentially damaging relief efforts.

"Hopefully some of the first responders are going to be able to use this data to find some of the missing people on the islands of Grand Bahama and Great Abaco," Fain says. "Last I checked (early Friday) there were about 2,000 reported missing by people on the islands so I would like to see this used to find some of them. Any little bit we can do from here in Oxford is helpful, hopefully."

Davis is working with the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) in the Bahamas, passing along verified data provided by the mapping volunteers. Getting the data to NEMA is just the first hurdle.

"Then finding the data for people is another hurdle and that's being held by a lot of different people and there's really no chain of custody," he explains. "Getting that and integrating it with what we're doing is another part of the puzzle. And for the survival of people that are on the ground, we have just days to do this, but then the recovery for islands - Grand Bahama is still reeling from Hurricane Joaquin and that was years ago - and now they're basically getting to a kneel and they're being knocked flat on their back again."

First year graduate student Connor O'Hearn from Cleveland figured out how to use the software quickly.

"This is like putting a puzzle together, it's a little bit therapeutic," he says. "Doing this mapping, to my understanding, it helps first responders understand the terrain better."

As he talked, several people around the room noticed some preexisting markings appeared to be slightly amiss, almost as if previous outlines were somehow shifted to resemble a building's shadow rather that its outline.

"I don't know how they overlaid this data but it seems like everything is just slightly skewed, but it's like putting a puzzle together and it's not that hard and it's helpful," O'Hearn says.

Across the room, second year geography graduate student Nafula Barasa of Kenya alternated between mapping on her own monitor and helping undergraduates around her.

"I think it's very important because geography is a very good thing and it helps, especially in these situations, to help give warnings to people who are yet to be affected maybe by a hurricane, and it will also help the authorities to contain the situations where they have not reached the people."

This is the first time Barasa says she's put her skills to use in such a manner.

"I really need to help because maybe one day I might be in the same situation and maybe I'll need help, too."

Graduate student Nafula Barasa showed up to help "because maybe one day I might be in the same situation and maybe I'll need help too."
Credit Scott Kissell / Miami University

How To Help

Many organizations are accepting money and donated items to send to the Hurricane Dorian relief. You can check with your favorite aid group to see how you can best help their efforts.

Davis suggests considering how your donation might affect the country down the road. For example, he says many people are sending generators, however, fuel on the islands is limited and many fuel tanks are compromised with saltwater. Gas-powered generators are also expensive to operate. He recommends solar generators, solar panels and feminine hygiene products.