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Monday, May 4, 2015

Nepal Earthquake Mapping: Telling Your Company's Story

Word is Out!

Status of one Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Task
In the geospatial circles where I travel on Web, the crowdsourced mapping efforts related to the Nepal earthquake are getting lots of digital ink. Based on my experience the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap effort is most mentioned, then Tomnod (DigitalGlobe) then the Kathmandu Cultural Emergency effort.

These efforts are making the rounds outside my geo and tech-focused media orbit in mainstream outlets like Wired, The Atlantic, the New York Times and many local papers where a local school, company or organization is participating.

I'm very happy to see all these stories. The coverage helps people around the world understand the value of maps and offers them a way to help in the recovery and relief efforts. And, it helps raise awareness of projects like OpenStreetMap and tools like CrowdMap (a crowdsourcing tool from the team behind Ushahidi). And, it reinforces the role for profit companies like DigitalGlobe can have in times of crisis.

The Tricky Bit

Organizations that choose to participate in these mapping efforts have some press relations decisions to make. Should they invite the public to a mapathon? Should they tout their employees participation to the local papers and TV stations? If so, how should they reach out to avoid looking like they are taking advantage of the situation for marketing purposes? These are tough questions.

I've seen several stories of universities hosting mapathons for faculty, staff and students (Stanford, for example). Educational institutions commonly have a mission of education and service, so participating and telling their stories raises few if any ethical or other issues. It's when for profit companies get involved that uncomfortable situations may pop up.

The stories I've read from companies involved in volunteered Nepal mapping have not raised any concerns. Still, I think there is room for improvement, both from the companies themselves and from the media. I want to look at two "case studies."


I was not at all surprised to see an article on FireWhat efforts to involve students in the Nepal earthquake response. Since GIS education is my beat, I know the company has been involved with local schools via GIS Day and other activities. Outreach like this is part of the company's mission, though the company website doesn't put much emphasis on it.

The reporter got a few things confused, as sometimes happens. She wrote that students are using FireWhat's technology when in fact they are using the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap task manager and tools. She described change detection activities, but I'm not sure students were doing that.

Perhaps the most important part of the story was the comment on the story that explained the long term commitment of the company and its partners to the Dunsmuir, California schools.
FireWhat is simply a facilitator of GIS education in partnership with The River Exchange and Dunsmuir Public Schools. They facilitate service learning and environmental stewardship projects for Dunsmuir Elementary and Dunsmuir High school.
Suggestion for future coverage: I encourage FireWhat and the local media to focus on the company's longterm commitment to the local schools around GIS and geography education.


I've not heard of NetEngine based in Brisbane, Australia, but it had quite a nice write up in CIO Australia. The subhead notes the company "initiated" a crowdsourcing project related to the Nepal earthquake. The CEO describes what the company is doing:
“Our team is leveraging mobile and web-based applications, participatory maps, aerial and satellite imagery, geospatial platforms and advanced visualisations to provide up to date mapping during this humanitarian crisis. We are calling on anyone who’d like to help to log on and start mapping,” he said.
Like FireWhat, NetEngine has a history of service: it participates in the Australian version of Random Hacks of Kindness, a hacking for good effort and has offered assistance during the Ebola crisis in West Africa and Typhoon Hgupit in the Philippines.

Sadly, the link provided in the article inviting people to help in the effort by visiting the company website, fails. I fear no one from CIO or NetEngine noticed. If you do make it to the company website you learn that just like the high schoolers in Dunsmuir, the NetEngine participants and friends are participating in the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap work. That might be unclear since screen grabs show illustrations from Cyclone Pam.

Suggestion for future coverage: I encourage NetEngine and publishers to review published articles for errors, such as the bad link. Further, I think it's important that companies make clear exactly what their staffers are doing. Did ten NetEngine staffers update HotOSM maps for two hours each night? Details like that may be more meaningful to the casual reader than the CEO's statement about "geospatial platforms and advanced visualizations."

The World of Earned Media

Both of these examples are earned media, that is, someone at the publication decided (or was convinced ) these were stories worth telling. I don't know whether the companies approached the media or vice versa. Frankly it does not really matter. What does matter is that a meaningful story be told. For that to happen, the company has to have a story!

In both of these cases I would have told the told stories of longterm commitments to education (FireWhat) and "hacking for good" (NetEngine) and put the current situation into that context. Certainly, other angles would work, too. A well crafted angle, provided by the company or the media, makes for a stronger and more memorable story.