Tag Archives: Disaster

Low-Cost UAV Applications for Post-Disaster Assessments: A Streamlined Workflow

Colleagues Matthew Cua, Charles Devaney and others recently co-authored this excellent study on their latest use of low-cost UAVs/drones for post-disaster assessments, environmental development and infrastructure development. They describe the “streamlined workflow—flight planning and data acquisition, post-processing, data delivery and collaborative sharing,” that they created “to deliver acquired images and orthorectified maps to various stakeholders within [their] consortium” of partners in the Philippines. They conclude from direct hands-on experience that “the combination of aerial surveys, ground observations and collaborative sharing with domain experts results in richer information content and a more effective decision support system.”

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UAVs have become “an effective tool for targeted remote sensing operations in areas that are inaccessible to conventional manned aerial platforms due to logistic and human constraints.” As such, “The rapid development of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology has enabled greater use of UAVs as remote sensing platforms to complement satellite and manned aerial remote sensing systems.” The figure above (click to enlarge) depicts the aerial imaging workflow developed by the co-authors to generate and disseminate post-processed images. This workflow, the main components of which are “Flight Planning & Data Acquisition,” “Data Post-Processing” and “Data Delivery,” will “continuously be updated, with the goal of automating more activities in order to increase processing speed, reduce cost and minimize human error.”

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Flight Planning simply means developing a flight plan based on clearly defined data needs. The screenshot above (click to enlarge) is a “UAV flight plan of the coastal section of Tacloban city, Leyte generated using APM Mission Planner. The [flight] plan involved flying a small UAV 200 meters above ground level. The raster scan pattern indicated by the yellow line was designed to take images with 80% overlap & 75% side overlap. The waypoints indicating a change in direction of the UAV are shown as green markers.” The purpose of the overlapping is to stitch and accurately geo-referenced the images during post-processing. A video on how to program UAV flight is available here.  This video specifically focuses on post-disaster assessments in the Philippines.

“Once in the field, the team verifies the flight plans before the UAV is flown by performing a pre-flight survey [which] may be done through ground observations of the area, use of local knowledge or short range aerial observations with a rotary UAV to identify launch/recovery sites and terrain characteristics. This may lead to adjustment in the flight plans. After the flight plans have been verified, the UAV is deployed for data acquisition.”

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Matthew, Charles and team initially used a Micropilot MP-Vision UAV for data acquisition. “However, due to increased cost of maintenance and significant skill requirements of setting up the MP-Vision,” they developed their own custom UAV instead, which “uses semi-professional and hobby- grade components combined with open-source software” as depicted in the above figure (click to enlarge). “The UAV’s airframe is the Super SkySurfer fixed-wing EPO foam frame.” The team used the “ArduPilot Mega (APM) autopilot system consisting of an Arduino-based microprocessor board, airspeed sensor, pressure and tem-perature sensor, GPS module, triple-axis gyro and other sensors. The firmware for navigation and control is open-source.”

The custom UAV, which costs approximately $2,000, has “an endurance of about 30-50 minutes, depending on payload weight and wind conditions, and is able to survey an area of up to 4 square kilometers.” The custom platform was “easier to assemble, repair, maintain, modify & use. This allowed faster deploy-ability of the UAV. In addition, since the autopilot firmware is open-source, with a large community of developers supporting it, it became easier to identify and address issues and obtain software updates.” That said, the custom UAV was “more prone to hardware and software errors, either due to assembly of parts, wiring of electronics or bugs in the software code.” Despite these drawbacks, “use of the custom UAV turned out to be more feasible and cost effective than use of a commercial-grade UAV.”

In terms of payloads (cameras), three different kinds were used: Panasonic Lumix LX3, Canon S100, and GoPro Hero 3. These cameras come with both advantages and disadvantages for aerial mapping. The LX3 has better image quality but the servo triggering the shutter would often fail. The S100 is GPS-enabled and does not require mechanical triggering. The Hero-3 was used for video reconnaissance specifically.

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“The workflow at [the Data-Processing] stage focuses on the creation of an orthomosaic—an orthorectified, georeferenced and stitched map derived from aerial images and GPS and IMU (inertial measurement unit values, particularly yaw, pitch and roll) information.” In other words, “orthorectification is the process of stretching the image to match the spatial accuracy of a map by considering location, elevation, and sensor information.”

Transforming aerial images into orthomosaics involves: (1) manually removing take-off/landing, burry & oblique images; (2) applying contrast enhancement to images that are either over- or under-exposed using commercial image-editing software; (3) geo-referencing the resulting images; (4) creating an orthomosaic from the geo-tagged images. The geo-referencing step is not needed if the images are already geo-referenced (i.e., have GPS coordinates, like those taken with the Cannon S100. “For non-georeferenced images, georeferencing is done by a custom Python script that generates a CSV file containing the mapping between images and GPS/IMU information. In this case, the images are not embedded with GPS coordinates.” The sample orthomosaic above uses 785 images taken during two UAV flights (click to enlarge).

Matthew, Charles and team used the “Pix4Dmapper photomapping software developed by Pix4D to render their orthomosaics. “The program can use either geotagged or non-geotagged images. For non-geotagged images, the software accepts other inputs such as the CSV file generated by the custom Python script to georeference each image and generate the photomosaic. Pix4D also outputs a report containing information about the output, such as total area covered and ground resolution. Quantum GIS, an open-source GIS software, was used for annotating and viewing the photomosaics, which can sometimes be too large to be viewed using common photo viewing software.”

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Data Delivery involves uploading the orthomosaics to a common, web-based platform that stakeholders can access. Orthomosaics “generally have large file sizes (e.g around 300MB for a 2 sq. km. render),” so the team created a web-based geographic information systems (GIS) to facilitate sharing of aerial maps. “The platform, named VEDA, allows viewing of rendered maps and adding metadata. The key advantage of using this platform is that the aerial imagery data is located in one place & can be accessed from any computer with a modern Internet browser. Before orthomosaics can be uploaded to the VEDA platform, they need to be converted into an approprate format supported by the platform. The current format used is MBTiles developed by Mapbox. The MBTiles format specifies how to partition a map image into smaller image tiles for web access. Once uploaded, the orthomosaic map can then be annotated with additional information, such as markers for points of interest.” The screenshot above (click to enlarge) shows the layout of a rendered orthomosaic in VEDA.

Matthew, Charles and team have applied the above workflow in various mission-critical UAV projects in the Philippines including damage assessment work after Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. This also included assessing the impact of the Typhoon on agriculture, which was an ongoing concern for local government during the recovery efforts. “The coconut industry, in particular, which plays a vital role in the Philippine economy, was severely impacted due to millions of coconut trees being damaged or flattened after the storm hit. In order to get an accurate assessment of the damage wrought by the typhoon, and to make a decision on the scale of recovery assistance from national government, aerial imagery coupled with a ground survey is a potentially promising approach.”

So the team received permission from local government to fly several missions over areas in Eastern Visayas that [were] devoted to coconut stands prior to Typhoon Haiyan.” (As such, “The UAV field team operated mostly in rural areas and wilderness, which reduced the human risk factor in case of aircraft failure. Also, as a safety guideline, the UAV was not flown within 3 miles from an active airport”). The partners in the Philippines are developing image processing techniques to distinguish “coconut trees from wild forest and vegetation for land use assessment and carbon source and sink estimates. One technique involved use of superpixel classification, wherein the image pixels are divided into homogeneous regions (i.e. collection of similar pixels) called superpixels which serve as the basic unit for classification.”

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The image below shows the “results of the initial test run where areas containing coconut trees [above] have been segmented.”

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“Similar techniques could also be used for crop damage assessment after a disaster such as Typhoon Haiyan, where for example standing coconut trees could be distinguished from fallen ones in order to determine capacity to produce coconut-based products.” This is an area that my team and I at QCRI are exploring in partnership with Matthew, Charles and company. In particular, we’re interested in assessing whether crowdsourcing can be used to facilitate the development of machine learning classifiers for image feature detection. More on this herehere and on CNN here. In addition, since “aerial imagery augmented with ground observations would provide a richer source of informa-tion than either one could provide alone,” we are also exploring the integration of social media data with aerial imagery (as described here).

In conclusion, Matthew, Charles and team are looking to further develop the above framework by automating more processes, “such as image filtering and image contrast enhancement. Autonomous take-off & landing will be configured for the custom UAV in order to reduce the need for a skilled pilot. A catapult system will be created for the UAV to launch in areas with a small clearing and a parachute system will be added in order to reduce the risk of damage due to belly landings.” I very much look forward to following the team’s progress and to collaborating with them on imagery analysis for disaster response.

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See Also:

  • Official UN Policy Brief on Humanitarian UAVs [link]
  • Common Misconceptions About Humanitarian UAVs [link]
  • Humanitarians in the Sky: Using UAVs for Disaster Response [link]
  • Humanitarian UAVs Fly in China After Earthquake [link]
  • Humanitarian UAV Missions During Balkan Floods [link]
  • Humanitarian UAVs in the Solomon Islands [link]
  • UAVs, Community Mapping & Disaster Risk Reduction in Haiti [link]

Humanitarian UAVs in the Solomon Islands

The Solomon Islands experienced heavy rains and flash floods following Tropical Cyclone Ita earlier this year. Over 50,000 people were affected and dozens killed, according to ReliefWeb. Infrastructure damage was extensive; entire houses were washed away and thousands lost their food gardens.

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Disaster responders used a rotary-wing UAV (an “Oktocopter”) to assist with the damage assessment efforts. More specifically, the UAV was used to assess the extent of the flood damage in the most affected area along Mataniko River.

Solomons UAV

The UAV was also used to map an area proposed for resettlement. In addition, the UAV was flown over a dam to assess potential damage. These flights were pre-programmed and thus autonomous. (Here’s a quick video demo on how to program UAV flights for disaster response). The UAV was flown at 110 meters altitude in order to capture very high-resolution imagery. “The altitude of 110m also allowed for an operation below the traditional air space and ensured a continuous visibility of the UAV from the starting / landing position.”

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While responders faced several challenges with the UAV, they nevertheless stated that “The UAV was extremely useful for the required mapping” (PDF). Some of these challenges included the limited availability of batteries, which limited the number of UAV flights. The wind also posed a challenge.

Solomons Analysis

Responders took more than 800 pictures (during one 17 minute flight) over the above area which was proposed for resettlement. About 10% of these images were then stitched together to form the mosaic displayed above. The result below depicts flooded areas along Mataniko River. According to responders, “This image data can be utilized to demonstrate the danger of destruction to people who start to resettle in the Mataniko River Valley. These very high resolution images (~ 3 to 5 cm) show details such as destroyed cars, parts of houses, etc. which demonstrate the force of the high water.” In sum, “The maps together with the images of the river could be utilized to raise awareness not to settle again in these areas.”

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Images taken of the dam were used to create the Digital Terrain Model (DTM) below. This enables responders to determine areas where the dam is most likely to overflow due to damage or future floods.

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The result of this DTM analysis enables responders to target the placement of rubber mats fixed with sand bags around the damn’s most vulnerable points.

Solomons Dam

In conclusion, disaster responders write that the use of “UAVs for data acquisition can be highly recommended. The flexibility of an UAV can be of high benefit for mapping purposes, especially in cases where fast data acquisition is desired, e.g. natural hazards. An important advantage of a UAV as platform is that image data recording is performed at low height and not disturbed by cloud cover. In theory a fixed-wing UAV might be more efficient for rapid mapping. However, the DTM applications would not be possible in this resolution with a fixed wing UAV. Notably due to the flexibility for potential starting and landing areas and the handling of the topography characterized by step valleys and obstacles such as power lines between mountain tops within the study area. Especially within the flooded areas a spatially sufficient start and land area for fixed wing UAVs would have been hard to identify.”

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See Also:

  • Official UN Policy Brief on Humanitarian UAVs [link]
  • Common Misconceptions About Humanitarian UAVs [link]
  • Humanitarians in the Sky: Using UAVs for Disaster Response [link]
  • Crisis Map of UAV Videos for Disaster Response [link]
  • Humanitarian UAV Missions During Balkan Floods [link]
  • UAVs, Community Mapping & Disaster Risk Reduction in Haiti [link]

Humanitarian UAVs Fly in China After Earthquake (updated)

A 6.1 magnitude earthquake struck Ludian County in Yunnan, China earlier this month. Some 600 people lost their lives; over 2,400 were injured and another 200,000 were forced to relocate. In terms of infrastructure damage, about 30,000 buildings were damaged and more than 12,000 homes collapsed. To rapidly search for survivors and assess this damage, responders in China turned to DJI’s office in Hong Kong. DJI is one of leading manufacturers of commercial UAVs in the world.

Rescuers search for survivors as they walk among debris of collapsed buildings after an earthquake hit Longtoushan township of Ludian county

DJI’s team of pilots worked directly with the China Association for Disaster and Emergency Response Medicine (CADERM). According to DJI, “This was the first time [the country] used [UAVs] in its relief efforts and as a result many of the cooperating agencies and bodies working on site have approached us for training / using UAS technology in the future […].” DJI flew two types of quadcopters, the DJI S900 and DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ pictured below (respectively):

DJI S900

Phantom 2

As mentioned here, The DJI Phantom 2 is the same one that the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is experimenting with:

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Given the dense rubble and vegetation in the disaster affected region of Ludian County in China, ground surveys were particularly challenging to carry out. So UAVs provided disaster responders with an unimpeded bird’s eye view of the damage, helping them prioritize their search and rescue efforts. DJI reports that the UAVs “were able to relay images back to rescue workers, who used them to determine which roads needed to be cleared first and which areas of the rubble to search for possible survivors. […].”

The video above shows some striking aerial footage of the disaster damage. This is the not first time that UAVs have been used for search and rescue or road clearance operations. Transporting urgent supplies to disaster areas requires that roads be cleared as quickly as possible, which is why UAVs were used for this and other purposes after Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. In Ludian, “Aerial images captured by the team were [also] used by workers in the epicenter area […] where most of the traditional buildings in the area collapsed.”

DJI was not the only group to fly UAVs in response to the quake in Yunnan. The Chinese government itself deployed UAVs (days before DJI). As the Associated Press reported several weeks ago already, “A novel part of the Yunnan response was the use of drones to map and monitor a quake-formed lake that threatened to flood areas downstream. China has rapidly developed drone use in recent years, and they helped save time and money while providing highly reliable data, said Xu Xiaokun, an engineer with the army reserves.”

Working with UAV manufacturers directly may prove to be the preferred route for humanitarian organizations requiring access to aerial imagery following major disasters. At the same time, having the capacity and skills in-house to rapidly deploy these UAVs affords several advantages over the partnership model. So combining in-house capacity with a partnership model may ultimately be the way to go but this will depend heavily on the individual mandates and needs of humanitarian organizations.

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See Also:

  • Humanitarians in the Sky: Using UAVs for Disaster Response [link]
  • Live Crisis Map of UAV Videos for Disaster Response [link]
  • Humanitarian UAV Missions During Balkan Floods [link]
  • UAVs, Community Mapping & Disaster Risk Reduction in Haiti [link]
  • “TripAdvisor” for International UAV/Drone Travel [link]

Live: Crowdsourced Crisis Map of UAV/Aerial Photos & Videos for Disaster Response (Updated)

Update: Crisis Map now includes features to post photos in addition to videos!

The latest version of the Humanitarian UAV Network’s Crisis Map of UAV/aerial photos & videos is now live on the Network’s website. The crowdsourced map already features dozens of aerial videos of recent disasters. Now, users can also post aerial photographs areas. Like the use of social media for emergency management, this new medium—user-generated (aerial) content—can be used by humanitarian organizations to complement their damage assessments and thus improve situational awareness.

UAViators Map

The purpose of this Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators) map is not only to provide humanitarian organizations and disaster-affected communities with an online repository of aerial information on disaster damage to augment their situational awareness; this crisis map also serves to raise awareness on how to safely & responsibly use small UAVs for rapid damage assessments. This explains why users who upload new content to the map must confirm that they have read the UAViator‘s Code of Conduct. They also have to confirm that the photos & videos conform to the Network’s mission and that they do not violate privacy or copyrights. In sum, the map seeks to crowdsource both aerial footage and critical thinking for the responsible use of UAVs in humanitarian settings.

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As noted above, this is the first version of the map, which means several other features are currently in the works. These new features will be rolled out incrementally over the next weeks and months. In the meantime, feel free to suggest any features you’d like to see in the comments section below. Thank you.

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  • Humanitarian UAV Network: Strategy for 2014-2015 [link]
  • Humanitarians in the Sky: Using UAVs for Disaster Response [link]
  • Humanitarian UAV Missions During Balkan Floods [link]
  • Using UAVs for Disaster Risk Reduction in Haiti [link]
  • Using MicroMappers to Make Sense of UAV/Aerial Imagery During Disasters [link]

Humanitarians Using UAVs for Post Disaster Recovery

I recently connected with senseFly’s Adam Klaptocz who founded the non-profit group DroneAdventures to promote humanitarian uses of UAVs. I first came across Adam’s efforts last year when reading about his good work in Haiti, which demonstrated the unique role that UAV technology & imagery can play in post-disaster contexts. DroneAdventures has also been active in Japan and Peru. In the coming months, the team will also be working on “aerial archeology” projects in Turkey and Egypt. When Adam emailed me last week, he and his team had just returned from yet another flying mission, this time in the Philippines. I’ll be meeting up with Adam in a couple weeks to learn more about their recent adventures. In the meantime, here’s a quick recap of what they were up to in the Philippines this month.

MedAir

Adam and team snapped hundreds of aerial images using their “eBee drones” to create a detailed set of 2D maps and 3D terrain models of the disaster-affected areas where partner Medair works. This is the first time that the Swiss humanitarian organization Medair is using UAVs to inform their recovery and rehabilitation programs. They plan to use the UAV maps & models of Tacloban and hard-hit areas in Leyte to assist in assessing “where the greatest need is” and what level of “assistance should be given to affected families as they continue to recover” (1). To this end, having accurate aerial images of these affected areas will allow the Swiss organization to “address the needs of individual households and advocate on their behalf when necessary” (2). 

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An eBee Drone also flew over Dulag, north of Leyte, where more than 80% of the homes and croplands were destroyed following Typhoon Yolanda. Medair is providing both materials and expertise to build new shelters in Dulag. As one Medair representative noted during the UAV flights, “Recovery from a disaster of this magnitude can be complex. The maps produced from the images taken by the drones will give everyone, including community members themselves, an opportunity to better understand not only where the greatest needs are, but also their potential solutions” (3). The partners are also committed to Open Data: “The images will be made public for free online, enabling community leaders and humanitarian organizations to use the information to coordinate reconstruction efforts” (4). The pictures of the Philippines mission below were very kindly shared by Adam who asked that they be credited to DroneAdventures.

Credit: DroneAdventures

At the request of the local Mayor, DroneAdventures and MedAir also took aerial images of a relatively undamaged area some 15 kilometers north of Tacloban, which is where the city government is looking to relocate families displaced by Typhoon Yolanda. During the deployment, Adam noted that “Lightweight drones such as the eBee are safe and easy to operate and can provide crucial imagery at a precision and speed unattainable by satellite imagery. Their relatively low cost of deployment make the technology attainable even by small communities throughout the developing world. Not only can drones be deployed immediately following a disaster in order to assess damage and provide detailed information to first-responders like Medair, but they can also assist community leaders in planning recovery efforts” (5). As the Medair rep added, “You can just push a button or launch them by hand to see them fly, and you don’t need a remote anymore—they are guided by GPS and are inherently safe” (6).

Credit: DroneAdventures

I really look forward to meeting up with Adam and the DroneAdventures team at the senseFly office in Lausanne next month to learn more about their recent work and future plans. I will also be asking the team for their feedback and guidance on the Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators) that I am launching. So stay tuned for updates!

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See also:

  • Calling All UAV Pilots: Want to Support Humanitarian Efforts? [link]
  • How UAVs are Making a Difference in Disaster Response [link]
  • Grassroots UAVs for Disaster Response (in the Philippines) [link]

 

Grassroots UAVs for Disaster Response

I was recently introduced to a new initiative that seeks to empower grassroots communities to deploy their own low-cost xUAVs. The purpose of this initiative? To support locally-led disaster response efforts and in so doing transfer math, science and engineering skills to local communities. The “x” in xUAV refers to expendable. The initiative is a partnership between California State University (Long Beach), University of Hawaii, Embry Riddle, The Philippine Council for Industry, Energy & Emerging Technology Research & Development, Skyeye, Aklan State University and Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines. The team is heading back to the Philippines next week for their second field mission. This blog post provides a short overview of the project’s approach and the results from their first mission, which took place during December 2013-February 2014.

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The xUAV team is specifically interested in a new category of UAVs, those that are locally available, locally deployable, low-cost, expendable and extremely easy to use. Their first field mission to the Philippines focused on exploring the possibilities. The pictures above/below (click to enlarge) were kindly shared by the Filipinos engaged in the project—I am very grateful to them for allowing me to share these publicly. Please do not reproduce these pictures without their written permission, thank you.

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I spoke at length with one of the xUAV team leads, Ted Ralston, who is heading back to the Philippines the second field mission. The purpose of this follow up visit is to shift the xUAV concept from experimental to deployable. One area that his students will be focusing on with the University of Manila is the development of a very user-friendly interface (using a low-cost tablet) to pilot the xUAVs so that local communities can simply tag way-points on a map that the xUAV will then automatically fly to. Indeed, this is where civilian UAVs are headed, full automation. A good example of this trend towards full automation is the new DroidPlanner 2.0 App just released by 3DRobotics. This free app provides powerful features to very easily plan autonomous flights. You can even create new flight plans on the fly and edit them onsite.

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So the xUAV team will focus on developing software for automated take-off and landing as well as automated adjustments for wind conditions when the xUAV is airborne, etc. The software will also automatically adjust the xUAV’s flight parameters for any added payloads. Any captured imagery would then be made easily viewable via touch-screen directly from the low-cost tablet.

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One of the team’s top priorities throughout this project is to transfer their skills to young Filipinos, given them hands on training in science, math and engineering. An equally important, related priority, is their focus on developing local partnerships with multiple partners. We’re familiar with ideas behind Public Participatory GIS (PPGIS) vis-a-vis the participatory use of geospatial information systems and technologies. The xUAV team seeks to extend this grassroots approach to Public Participatory UAVs.

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I’m supporting this xUAV initiative in a number of ways and will be uploading the team’s UAV imagery (videos & still photos) from their upcoming field mission to MicroMappers for some internal testing. I’m particularly interested in user-generated (aerial) content that is raw and not pre-processed or stitched together, however. Why? Because I expect this type of imagery to grow in volume given the very rapid growth of the personal micro-UAV market. For more professionally produced and stitched-together aerial content, an ideal platform is Humanitarian OpenStreetMap’s Tasking Server, which is tried and tested for satellite imagery and which was recently used to trace processed UAV imagery of Tacloban.

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I look forward to following the xUAV team’s efforts and hope to report on the outcome of their second field mission. The xUAV initiative fits very nicely with the goals of the Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators). We’ll be learning a lot in the coming weeks and months from our colleagues in the Philippines.

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Crisis Mapping without GPS Coordinates (Updated)

Update: Video introduction to What3Words:

I recently spoke with a UK start-up that is doing away with GPS coordinates even though their company focuses on geographic information and maps. The start-up, What3Words, has divided the globe into 57 trillion squares and given each of these 3-by-3 meter areas a unique three-word code. Goodbye long postal addresses and cryptic GPS coordinates. Hello planet.inches.most. The start-up also offers a service called OneWord, which allows you to customize a one-word name for any square. In addition, the company has expanded to other languages such as Spanish, Swedish and Russian. They’re now working on including Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and others by mid-January 2014. Meanwhile, their API lets anyone build new applications that tap their global map of 57 trillion squares.

Credit: What3Words

When I spoke with CEO Chris Sheldrick, he noted that their very first users were emergency response organizations. One group in Australia, for example, is using What3Words as part of their SMS emergency service. “This will let people identify their homes with just three words, ensuring that emergency vehicles can find them as quickly as possible.” Such an approach provides greater accuracy, which is vital in rural areas. “Our ambulances have a terrible time with street addresses, particularly in The Bush.” Moreover, many places in the world have no addresses at all. So What3Words may also be useful for certain ICT4D projects in addition to crisis mapping. The real key to this service is simplicity, i.e., communicating three words over the phone, via SMS/Twitter or email is far easier (and less error prone) than dictating a postal address or a complicated set of GPS coordinates.

Credit: What3Words

How else do you think this service could be used vis-à-vis disaster response?

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