Humanitarian OSM Team/Action considerations

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While the Humanitarian OSM Team remains an informal initiative not amenable to rigid co-ordination, it is important to record considerations to guide our response to events. This should help us make sure nothing is overlooked, and that we improve each time.

A related page is HOT activation


The approach should prioritise these factors:

  • timeliness
  • appropriateness: work at what will provide the most humanitarian benefit, given the circumstances
  • application: make sure the benefits of the work are known and understood by those in a position to use it on the ground, otherwise there is no humanitarian benefit


Background information

Situation on the ground

This will inform how mapping/information can best be deployed and what are priorities.

  • what rescue activities are taking place? Is there key information making this difficult? (e.g. doorknock checks of residences struggling with poor address information)
  • media
  • physical infrastructure: electricity, sewerage, (potable) water, gas, transport routes
  • communications infrastructure: internet, landline, mobile
  • social infrastructure: health, support services
  • supplies: food, fuel, heating
  • mobility
  • hazards: holes/cracks, live wires, dangerous structures and landscapes, disease, toxicity. These are generally quite mappable.
  • crime
  • language: will HOT need to find a translator for mapping and contacting local people?

Existing data

  • are there already good maps that can be immediately useful? (Google, community maps, Bing, private)
  • what are existing maps missing that would help?
  • do existing map licenses allow importing/supplementing them in a way compatible with OSM licenses?

Data and imagery made available

Third parties will often release geospatial data and/or aerial images under compatible licenses especially to assist in crises. The images or data may represent before and/or after the crisis.

It's important to prioritise what provides the most important and immediately useful benefit from donated sources, and not simply map what's most easy or fun. Priorities should be determined based on identified gaps and requirements.

Donated sources can include:

  • government datasets (cadastres, etc)
  • flyover and satellite images
  • utility layers

Be sure to document exactly how volunteers can use donated sources as part of comprehensive "how you can help" resources for the crisis.

Engagement and co-ordination

You will probably get the best humanitarian results if you can hook up with local people. They can help you co-ordinate more accurate mapping, tell you what's most needed and what's working, get others involved, publicise the initiative, and help you distribute what you've done (e.g. printed maps).

It is worth investing some effort finding community contacts. The ideal situation is if there are active local mappers.

  • are there any user pins in the area? if so, is the user active. (contact them through their OSM account)
  • review recent edits (TODO: tools?) that are not bots (contact them through their OSM account)
  • look for a local "Users in" page for the area or country on the OSM wiki (contact them through their wiki account)
  • post messages on local mailing lists, IRC, social networks, etc
  • take note of any recent editors you discover when improving the map for the crisis (tracing, importing, etc.) (contact them through their OSM account)

The next best option is to find community movers and shakers. These people will be harder to reach and convince. They will probably be busy and less likely to be knowledgeable about the benefits of information activism.

  • research the community with simple internet searches
  • find community groups and determine who makes things happen
  • if there are community websites, prioritise anyone who has set them up, especially if they have indicated they are willing to be contacted
  • join community websites and post notices if possible
  • see if there are local media outlets (television, radio, newspaper) who can raise awareness and appeal for co-ordinating assistance (especially useful if there is no or little internet)
  • are there official bodies co-ordinating recovery activities (military, police, rescue agencies)? can they help with, use, or share what you've done?
  • contact recovery centres directly, they may at least be able to make printouts available


How to map


Import donated datasets with the usual caution and consideration. Only import what will be useful and you trust to be accurate. If the area is barely mapped, you can probably be less cautious.


When using imagery without the assistance of local people, be very careful making assumptions about what you trace. Especially if there is no local to review or clean up the map in the near future, it is better to stick with generic tag values (e.g. highway=road instead of highway=residential) if you have any doubts. It can also be wise to use FIXME notes if you think it's better in the situation to apply a functional tag than not.

Ground survey

This requires an existing mapper or someone prepared to travel to the area. It is slow but most accurate. Do not place yourself in dangerous situations to make the map. Consider getting information from locals or asking professional/insured recovery crew to carry a tracer if you think that will assist mapping hazardous areas.


Ideally, this is imported or traced data that is co-ordinated and/or verified by someone on the ground.

What to map

Typically these will be the most common map feature requirements, but each case will vary:

  • roads and transport routes: ports, airports, railway stations. These help people escape dangerous situations and access resources. It will be important in crisis situations to tag their condition if known.
  • supplies: petrol, food, water, heating, pharmaceutical supplies
  • emergency shelter
  • toilets
  • drinking water sources
  • dwellings: these are important in urban household rescue operations. If there are no such operations or they already have good data, do not undertake such a time-consuming activity.
  • information and support service centres
  • places of worship: heavily dependent on cultural requirements
  • communication outlets, especially telephones
  • hazards, cordons, and dangerous vicinities
  • medical facilities

Suitable outputs

It is important to consider and offer what people can use. Seek input and feedback if you have made local contact. Make sure the work's availability is known and understood.

  • imports for devices (Garmin, Android, etc)
  • web renderings, preferably customisable
  • printable maps, preferably customisable