How maps are saving lives as Nepal recovers from its earthquake

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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman, and this is The World. A man named Nama Budhathoki was working on his Ph.D. here in the US when the big earthquake hit Haiti back in 2010. He was studying mapping, and one of the things he noticed during the initial recovery efforts in Haiti was the lack of good maps. Budhathoki is from Nepal, and he couldn't help but think about his own country. Nepal was also at risk for a big earthquake, and also lacked good maps. So he returned home in 2013 and started Kathmandu Living Labs, recruiting volunteers to help map out the Kathmandu Valley. It’s an open-source mapping effort, kind of like the Wikipedia of mapping. Budhathoki was in Nepal on April 25th when the big one hit there. I spoke with him earlier today via a noisy Skype line.


Nama Budhathoki: When I started to map Nepal, one of the first things we wanted to map was road network, and then slowly we wanted to put other information like restaurants, schools, hospitals, temples -essentially anything.


Werman: Kathmandu is a funny capital city. There are many streets that don’t even have names, and it occurs to me that it’s gonna be kind of hard for citizens to actually locate something if they can’t say where it is.


Budhathoki: Exactly, exactly. You know a lot of buildings don’t have even, uh, house number. You’re right. The streets don’t have street names. You won’t see that when you walk down the street, and that makes navigation extremely difficult, even in normal situations. So the technology has lot of potential to make lot of those things easier. The kind of map we’ve been doing, the OpenStreetMap is even more important in Nepal than many other cities in many other countries because we don’t have good addressing system, we don’t have street names. It’s very important here.


Werman: So you’re basically ahead of the curve with your maps before the earthquake. What kind of difference do you think having all these crowd sources maps ahead of this quake made in terms of relief efforts?


Budhathoki: Marco, that’s very good question. Since cities were already mapped, the OpenStreetMap community could start mapping the villages. We didn’t have to focus a lot of the core of the cities, so all 11 districts that were badly hit by the earthquake were quickly mapped.


Werman: With a lot of people now in Nepal no longer in their homes, kind of disenfranchised because of this quake, how’s that going to affect future mapping efforts for you?


Budhathoki: I think a lot of people have started to understand the value of a map from this earthquakes. It’s not really a map culture here, but now, for rescue operations to distribute the needed materials, even to plan the recovery process, a lot of people have started talking about the map. When people are going to the remote villages, in the distribution of relief materials, needed to come to us, can you give us a map. I think the value of map will continue, but the focus of the mapping might change a little bit. Before the quake we were mapping the road networks for example. What we need to map now is blocked roads due to damaged buildings or landslides. And as we begin the recovery process, we might need to put different information in the map.


Werman: Nama Budhathoki, the founder of Kathmandu Living Labs, speaking with me from Kathmandu. Thank you very much and good luck.


Budhathoki: Thank you, Marco. Thank you very much.