Students + Campus

UCLA community provides long-distance assist for Puerto Rico recovery

Dozens of volunteers helped build better maps to assist the storm-ravaged island

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Mapathon group
Rebecca Kendall/UCLA

The maps the volunteers added building locations to will be used to help aid workers in Puerto Rico determine where resources are needed.

Anna-Michelle McSorley, a second year master’s student in the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, has been keeping up with news from Puerto Rico as it recovers from the devastation of Hurricane Maria. For McSorley, who has aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents in Puerto Rico, and who once lived in Añasco, a city on the western coast of the island, it has been particularly difficult. 

“I was contacted last week and told that no one from my town died, so I was really relieved, and my family is OK. But I’ve just been feeling like my hands are tied,” said McSorley, adding that there has been no further communication with her family because of the severe damage to the island. “I can’t really do anything. I can’t send them money. I can’t go there. I can’t send packages because there’s no infrastructure, so there’s really nothing I feel I can do.”

This feeling of helplessness was partially relieved when McSorley, who lived in Añasco during middle school, learned about a “mapathon” that was held Oct. 5 at the Charles E. Young Research Library. During the four-hour event, volunteers, who were not required to have any experience with mapping, added building locations to digital maps of Puerto Rico focusing on the municipality of Ponce, located in the southern part of Puerto Rico. The maps will be used to help aid workers on the island determine where resources are needed and how many are needed. Midway through the mapathon about 50 people had stopped by to assist.

“I’ve been listening to the news every day and keeping on top of things, and it’s been frustrating to hear that there are supplies on the island just sitting at the port of San Juan,” said McSorley, who planned to stay as long as possible at the library to continue the volunteer mapping and then go home and show her husband how to do it. “They don’t have the infrastructure or ability to get the supplies out to the towns. They don’t know where they are, they don’t know how to access them. There are no drivers. The roads are blocked. There isn’t a way to get to them. Knowing that I can map out where people may be so they can appropriately allocate the supplies that are there makes me feel amazing. I don’t know how to explain it.”

The mapathon was organized by UCLA librarians Zoe Borovsky and Dawn Childress, who were inspired by similar events being held at other universities and in other communities. It provided an opportunity for participants to join people from around the world as they worked to digitally map parts of the island that had previously been unmapped. Efforts to digitally map Puerto Rico and other international locations are on-going.

“I should be doing homework, but I want to be doing this because it’s something I can do so I don’t feel like there’s nothing I can do,” said McSorley, who had already completed a one kilometer square quadrant on OpenStreetMap by marking buildings alongside a roadway in a densely packed area.

Working on a laptop nearby was Ram Eshwar Kaundinya, a junior majoring in cognitive science and minoring in digital humanities. He learned about the mapathon from Miriam Posner, a digital humanities core faculty member and the program coordinator. Posner, who had shared news of the event with students in her class, was also busy mapping at the library.

“It’s interesting to see digital humanities applied to real-life efforts associated with a natural disaster in Puerto Rico and to see how we can help through something that seems almost mundane and inapplicable like mapping,” Kaundinya said. “We’re not even on the ground, but we can somehow make some sort of contribution. Aside from that, I’m also interested to see how you can apply humanities to a digital perspective like this.”

Yoh Kawano, a geographic information systems coordinator for the UCLA Institute of Digital Research and Education, said there is always an ongoing need for data to be digitized. “I’ve been in the mapping business for 20 years, and it’s really exciting that we can crowdsource data — meaning anyone in the world can go online and help out. It didn’t use to be that way. You used to have to be part of the industry, part of the business to digitize. Now anybody can come in and contribute.”

Kawano is now gearing up for GIS Day on Nov. 15 when the UCLA community and other volunteers will gather at the Young Library to take on another digital mapping collaboration. “The only difference is that we will be doing a different mission, decided based on where the need is greatest at that time, and there will be pizza.”

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