Building Maps with Street-Level Imagery for Disaster Risk Reduction and Response

For this International Day for Disaster Reduction we are profiling some of the different ways people and organizations are using street-level imagery to spring into action before, during, and after disaster strikes.

Too often we hear news of natural disasters. Just this month, hurricane Michael is destroying parts of the southeast United States while a massive tsunami recently killed almost 2000 people in Indonesia. With this constant stream of terrible news, it’s easy to feel helpless. The good news is, street-level imagery can help. For this International Day for Natural Disaster Reduction, we’re bringing you three perspectives on how street-level imagery helps before, during, and after disaster strikes.

Using street-level imagery in researching earthquakes
Dr. Harriette Stone is an earthquake engineer at University College London who looks at how new technology can improve disaster response efforts. Her latest publication focuses on post-earthquake data collection with “omnidirectional imagery” also known as 360° street-level imagery.


360° imagery, uploaded to Mapillary, collected by Dr. Stone following a 2016 earthquake in Ecuador.

Following a disaster, it is important for engineers to spring into action, but the safety of field teams in these dangerous environments is critical. Using Mapillary to conduct a virtual survey, large amounts of data can be quickly analyzed to assess damage. For the sake of both speed and safety, street-level imagery offers a solution for quickly collecting data in a large area. According to Dr. Stone:

“If a virtual environment could be created of a disaster zone within a few days of an event, many different parts of the humanitarian aid efforts could use it to understand immediate needs, locate priority areas, or even to start planning recovery and reconstruction activities so that those most at-risk suffer less when disaster strikes.”

Virtual surveys also allow engineers like Harriette to understand the patterns of earthquake damage, which is important to risk reduction work. For this, having a pre-existing database of images for comparisons is particularly helpful. It also means that when people on the ground, like in Ecuador, capture imagery it’s shortly thereafter available online for teams around the globe to view and analyze.

Reducing the impact of natural disasters with the help of easily managed data
The World Bank project named Open Cities Africa is supporting infrastructure projects that looks to reduce the vulnerability of eleven African cities to natural hazards, particularly floods. Rapid urbanization has led to people settling in high risk areas due to pressures on land availability, but existing infrastructure is often not equipped to keep up with a rapidly growing population.

Keeping maps updated allows The World Bank and its government partners to better understand the vulnerabilities of different areas, and how they can work to reduce them. The Open Cities project implement a collaborative approach that allows to collect up-to-date and detailed data, to develop the capacity of local government, universities and communities to work with digital cartography, and to create a network to share knowledge about how to do this across different African cities. As part of this, local governments and universities are involved to develop new approaches for geospatial data collection that will enable quicker and better informed decisions.

According to Vivien Deparday, Disaster Risk Management Specialist at the Global Facility for Disaster Risk Reduction (GFDRR):

"We rely on working with people to collaborate for mapping. This is really enabled by the OpenStreetMap platform and community. With Mapillary, we can go even further, it makes it easier to collect and manage large amount of street-view data to ground truth, and check the quality of the information generated. Now cities like Zanzibar in Tanzania and Accra in Ghana are using Mapillary to add more attributes to OpenStreetMap.”


Nearly 160 kilometers of Zanzibar were recently mapped with Mapillary.

Responding to disasters with the help of street-level imagery
Following a disaster, it is important for first responders to quickly get to people in need. Unfortunately, maps are often riddled with errors, whether it’s lack of precision, insufficient or simply incorrect data. This results in poor directions and delayed response time—so being able to fix maps becomes a question of life or death. When hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017, Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) mapped the entire island to show where the damage occurred and assist recovery efforts.


OpenStreetMap and Mapillary contributor jmoliver has mapped over 265 km of Puerto Rico.

Satellite imagery is sometimes used to validate maps, but this is normally difficult following disasters since they usually bring clouds that obstruct the area you are trying to view. In other cases, the areas are newly built, so there might not be any comprehensive maps at all. Rebecca Firth and Harry Mahardhika, Community Manager and GIS Trainer at HOT, respectively, explain:

“Some of the places we operate in are completely new— with settlements of 100s of 1000s of people springing up in just a few years. For example, in Uganda we work with refugees and host communities to enable them to map their changing environments. Both in and outside of camps, the map changes incredibly quickly. Having access to a platform like Mapillary, where anyone can upload imagery at any time, allows us to gather and validate data in a fast manner.”

Here’s how you can help
Humanitarian mapping and sharing data is an important part of building disaster resilience.
Here’s how you can help:

In short, updated maps save lives. If you’re not yet on Mapillary, you can help us fixing maps by joining us here.

/Lindsey

For more information on how mapping can help disaster risk reduction and response, check out some of our previous blog posts:

How Red Cross Uses Data During Global Disasters
Disaster Resilience Starts Today. What Can You Do to Help?
Microsoft Donates Imagery to Help with Disaster Recovery in Texas and Florida
Building Infrastructure with Mapillary in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

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