Sharon Machlis

Traffic-mapping tech paints picture of post-quake Japan

March 14, 2011 10:12 AM EDT

Brilliant.

Which roads are passable in Japan? Which are blocked? In these desperate days after the terrible earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan, who's got time to painstakingly map which roads are open and which are blocked?

There's a map online doing this automatically, by collecting data from Honda vehicles equipped with its InterNavi system that transmits data about how fast the vehicle is moving.

While this can't paint a complete picture of the situation, since many areas either may not have autos with that equipment or may have open roads but no working data-transmitting equipment, it's still a clever use of technology that was designed to help drivers find more fuel-efficient traffic routes.

Another mapping project, OpenStreetMap Japan, is using volunteer GIS experts to create a better open-source map of Japan for use by those responding to the crisis, reports Nick Doiron, a civil engineering student at Carnegie Mellon University who has created maps for the non-profit Ushahidi. Ushahidi has been used to help responders to a number of disasters such as last year's earthquake in Haiti, although it has not yet been deployed in Japan.

Dorion passed along e-mail from organizer Shu Higashi in Tokyo on a humanitarian Open Source Mapping list seeking volunteers to map and trace regions of Japan affected by the disaster. Such mapping was done in Haiti to help relief agencies.

ESRI, makers of commercial mapping software, is also helping map the crisis, plotting information about aftershocks with crowd-sourced content from Ushahidi, YouTube, Twitter and Flickr on an interactive Japan Incident Map. And, Google is making satellite images from its partners generally available to those seeking to use them for mapping and other needs.

How much do such tech deployments help on the ground? A post-Haiti report by the Knight Foundation concluded that "there were many beneficial ways to use digital media in the cirisis setting, particularly texting functions," but notes that despite attention to new media, an older standby was "the most effective tool for serving the needs of the public": radio. The report also suggests more non-crisis work between the tech and humanitarian-aid communities, so they're better able to work together when a crisis hits -- as, I would add, the amateur-radio community has been doing for decades with local emergency responders through the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service.

Sharon Machlis is online managing editor at Computerworld. Her e-mail address is smachlis@computerworld.com. You can follow her on Twitter Twitter @sharon000, on Facebook or by subscribing to her RSS feeds:
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