A Week in Manila—Crisis Mapping and the Growth of Mapping in Asia

Looking back on an action-packed week at the International Conference of Crisis Mappers, State of the Map Asia and the Polytechnic University of the Philippines.

Earlier this month I had the privilege of spending a week in Manila to attend the International Conference for Crisis Mappers and State of the Map Asia. Here’s a summary of what was an exciting and fulfilling week.

The International Conference of Crisis Mappers

The week began at the International Conference of Crisis Mappers, a gathering that has been taking place since 2009. The conference is an opportunity to showcase and share how technology can be used to reduce the threats posed by disasters and also to prepare more effectively when they strike.

Manila was the seventh conference thus far and attendees came from far and wide representing government, NGOs, the educational sector and companies. I had originally only planned to attend State of the Map Asia, but when I saw that there was a Crisis Mapping conference in the days before, it was a no-brainer to attend.

After dropping my bags off at the hotel, it was straight to the tech fair—an opportunity for attendees to demonstrate the solutions they’re bringing to crisis mapping. I spent most of the night at our assigned Cabana, but it was fantastic how many people were excited to hear about Mapillary.

Using street-level photos to build resilience against a range of crises is something that we have been experimenting with in collaboration with various partners over the last year. Being able to visually communicate the situation on the ground with stakeholders anywhere in the world is a valuable tool and enables far more accurate mapping and consequently better response in the event of a crisis. It also means that agencies can build up resilience, whether that be through the development of appropriate infrastructure or an understanding of how events like flooding cause damage to different parts of the city.

Our Cabana at the tech fair Our poolside Cabana

On day one of the conference I gave an ignite talk, a fun format where you give a 5-minute presentation. The catch is that you have to use 20 slides which are set to change every 15 seconds. It’s a useful exercise to make sure you get straight to the point. Videos from the day should be online soon.

Ignite talk on why individuals, organizations, and government should work together Sharing our passion for crowdsourcing, not just among individuals but organizations too

Some takeaways

Street-level photos aside, it was really interesting to hear how technology is being used in a myriad of ways in the crisis mapping space. Most prominent is the use of drones. There is a lot of hype around drones at the moment, but for good reason. They’re an exciting technology that in many ways embodies a future imagined—present now.

One example which really sparked my interest is SenseFly. This is a drone equipped with an aerial imaging camera which you pre-program with a specified route prior to launch. As you can guess, it’s a drone that has become incredibly useful in the humanitarian space because of its ease of operation.

One takeaway from this is the scalability of crowdsourcing data collection when you train and equip local communities. SenseFly has been deployed in different villages around the world and its ease of use means that training locals to use it doesn’t take long. The drones can quickly be deployed from locality to locality and detailed aerial imagery collected far more rapidly than when relying on large commercial satellites. In many ways it further validates efforts to deploy equipment to gather street-level photos.

Another memorable presentation was that of Pim de Witte, the Product Manager who developed MapSwipe for MissingMaps. The app is simple to use, addictive and versatile, being available for both online and offline usage. The aim of the app is to make it easier for Humanitarian OpenStreetMap to know which areas have population so that they can prioritise those locations and develop tasks for them.

Users open the app, select an area that needs mapping and then swipe through satellite imagery, where they identify features such as houses and roads by simply tapping. This information allows for a heat map of large areas to be generated, with the data aggregated across contributors to ensure greater accuracy. The project shows the willingness of people to play a role in data collection if there is a low barrier to entry and it is made engaging.

Cool toys aside, something repeatedly stressed by those with experience in the field was not to get caught up thinking the tool is the solution. It can be vital to solving the problem, but there is usually a lot of work to do either side to ensure the tool is effectively utilized. This is definitely something we can relate to when trying to get street-level photo coverage in the remote parts of the world. Amazing computer vision and equipment only goes so far when you don’t have an internet connection. Ultimately the coordination on the ground is half the battle.

ICCM Workshop

On the last day of the conference I was asked to hold a workshop. This was a good forum to give people a closer look at Mapillary and also for us to hear from a variety of different NGOs and individuals on what needs they have dealing with typhoons, earthquakes and floods and how street-level photos can assist in preparation and response.

ICCM Workshop Mapillary workshop

State of the Map Asia

Arriving at State of the Map Asia Outside the main hall at State of the Map Asia

With the Crisis Mapping conference over, the original purpose for venturing to the Philippines was underway. I began the day with the Mapbox Bangalore team as we ironically got lost in the University of the Philippines Diliman campus looking for the main hall of the conference.

The best thing about State of the Map conferences is getting to meet people that you have only ever been communicating with virtually. It was impressive to see people coming from across this diverse region, everywhere from Indonesia to Japan, Nepal to Taiwan. I gave another introduction to Mapillary and listened in on many enlightening presentations on the state of the map across Asia and tools such as Mapbox and Maps.Me.

At the end of day one, we ventured to the Mapbox party on a Comet, an electric open-air van, and emerging competitor to the iconic Phillipine jeepney. It was filled to the brim as we excitedly crammed on. I was really impressed that this electric vehicle was able to take such a heavy load.

The fun lasted for all of 10 minutes as the Manila traffic, heat and pollution got the better of us. Nonetheless, we definitely have a better sense of what locals put up with on their morning commute and why mapping is such an integral part of building more livable, efficient cities.

Photo walk

The plan on day two of the conference was to hold a workshop where I would walk people through each aspect of Mapillary. The lack of internet however meant that a photo walk seemed like a much more viable option, and more fun too.

With about 30 people we broke up into groups to map UP Diliman. Only half the attendees were able to download the app because of internet issues, but everyone was a good sport and took turns in photo mapping the campus. Once again, everyone’s enthusiasm was really encouraging. With the Philippines heat and humidity getting the best of us, we called it a day and headed back to the air-conditioned conference hall.

Coverage of UP Diliman Our coverage so far. 360º photos are pending upload

As the conference drew to a close, attendees from across Asia were already discussing the next one and where it should be held. There was a real collegial atmosphere and an enthusiasm to replicate the interest and use of GIS tools that is seen in Europe and North America. Exciting times ahead.


Before leaving Manila, there was one more important event to take place. Erwin Olario and I had discussed conducting some kind of kick-off event to encourage the mapping of San Juan municipality. We had provided a mapping kit with an action camera and a 360º camera, the idea being to get citizens to photo map San Juan.

Erwin came up with MapAmore, a portmanteau of maps and the Italian word for love. The event was held at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines San Juan campus and attended by computer science students. The theme of the day was free and open-source software, but maps and the data they provide played a central role, with Erwin keen to get students to contribute to Mapillary and OpenStreetMap.

The university, Erwin and Rally have been great supporters. I’m looking forward to what we can achieve with the students in metro Manila. You can see more photos from the day here.

360º selfie with the MapAmore team

A massive thank you to the organising teams of the Crisis Mapping conference and State of the Map Asia. Particular thanks to Erwin who was present throughout, both organising and engaging at all three events. The energy of attendees both from the Philippines and throughout the diverse region of Asia was most encouraging and Mapillary is looking forward to working with you all in the months and years ahead.



Continue the conversation