Haiti Disaster Response

Interaction type

Public → Government

Trigger Event

A natural disaster (earthquake) and a humanitarian crisis


Generic Mapping (topographic maps of the area) / Purpose-build maps (disaster relief management)


OSM community  (Humanitarian OSM Team)


Crowd, United Nations, NGOs, National Haitian Mapping Agency, National Center of Spatial Information, Haitian civil society.

Data sets in use

Historic maps, CIA maps, high resolution imagery in Yahoo, paper maps and GPS tracks.


Tracing in OSM platform from different data sources and collecting GPS tracks.


Topographic and purpose-build maps for the management of supplies in medicine and food, and location of settlements.


Facilitate disaster response

Side effects

The datasets created have not been used by the national mapping agency but rather by international aid organisations (UN, USAID)

Contact person


Figure 4.1: [Source: http://hot.openstreetmap.org/projects/haiti-2]

Haiti was dramatically affected after the 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit in 12 January 2010 the capital city of Port-au-Prince. Estimates of deaths range from 100,000 to 159,000, and the Haitian government reports that over 200,000 people were killed. More than 250,000 residents were injured and more than 30,000 buildings were collapsed or severely damaged. The Haitian government and the numerous non-governmental organizations (NGOs) seeking to respond to the disaster lacked accurate and up to date maps to help guide their work. The only available spatial data were poor in content and had last been updated in 1960s; moreover, the local mapping agency collapsed in the earthquake and many of the skilled employees were lost. An updated map was urgently needed to enable distribution of supplies, attention to collapsed buildings, repair of damaged infrastructure, and provision of medical services.

Figure 4.2: [ Source: http://brainoff.com/weblog/2010/01/14/1518 ]

The Haiti disaster response constitutes an example of a successful project in which geographic information was released from partners to the crowd for enhancement and then returned back to government for activation—although government was rather reluctant to involve volunteers.. Historic maps, CIA maps, and high-resolution imagery in Yahoo were used for tracing in OSM so that the basic maps could be improved.  Within 48 hours new imagery, made available by the World Bank, Google and others was also made available for tracing in OSM.  According to HOT, within a month, 600 volunteers had added spatial information to OpenStreetMap and OSM was used as a default base map for the response to the Haiti earthquake.

Four factors explain the success of this project: the rapid time in which the data was created, the low costs involved, the numerous contributions of volunteers from the OpenStreetMap community, and the public release of high-resolution satellite imagery. The two first factors can be summarized by the United Nations (2010): “It would have taken tens of thousands of pounds and years to do what OpenStreetMap did in 3 weeks.” The third factor was the remote volunteers who acted quickly, coordinated their efforts, and disseminated the appeal for help all over the world. As Waters (2010) admits, “It is the first time where individuals from the comfort and safety of their own home can literally help other people save lives in a disaster zone.”[1]  A final key factor in the success of the project was the willingness of partners to provide spatial data and imagery free of license restrictions.

Despite the success in the rapid creation of the most detailed map of the quake-affected area available, several challenges should be highlighted.  First, despite the efforts of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap team and others, CNIGS, the Haitian national mapping agency was never fully involved in the project.  This represented a missed opportunity to establish a richer connection between the Haitian government and the OpenStreetMap community.  Second, the number of volunteers involved in the digitization and the speed in which it occurred caused coordination difficulties that in turn led to duplication of data and some amount of wasted effort.

Undeniably, what OpenStreetMap did in Haiti changed both disaster response and perceptions of volunteered geographic information forever.

Main lessons:

  • Crowdsourcing of mapping is a valuable ex post disaster response.
  • Volunteers from the OSM community and the access to high-resolution imagery are the main reasons of this project’s success.
  •  Coordination amongst distributed volunteers involved in mapping is a challenge that needs to be addressed in order to ensure efficient use of their time.


Brain Off, 2010. Haiti OpenStreetMap Response[online] Available at: [http://brainoff.com/weblog/2010/01/14/1518] [Accessed 8 December 2013].

Haklay, M., 2010. Usability of VGI in Haiti earthquake response. [online] Available at: [http://www.slideshare.net/mukih/usability-of-vgi-in-haiti-earthquake-response-preliminary-thoughts] [Accessed 8 December 2013].

Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, 2013. Haiti [online] Available at: [http://hot.openstreetmap.org/projects/haiti-2] [Accessed 8 December 2013].

Maron, M., 2007. OpenStreetMap. A disaster waiting to happen[online] Available at: [http://www.slideshare.net/mikel_maron/openstreetmap-a-disaster-waiting-to-happen] [Accessed 8 December 2013].

OpenSource.com, 2010. OpenStreetMap Haiti [online] Available at: [http://opensource.com/osm] [Accessed 8 December 2013].

Waters, T.,2010. The OpenStreetMap project and Haiti Earthquake Case study [online] Available at: [http://www.slideshare.net/chippy/openstreetmap-case-study-haiti-crisis-response] [Accessed 8 December 2013].


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