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News — 30 August, 2023

Is the Caribbean Open Mapping Community Poised to Map its Way to Greater Disaster Resilience?

The open-mapping community has proven to be of great importance to the Caribbean particularly in supporting disaster response. We take a closer look at the latest developments regarding the growth of the Caribbean mapping community and what this could mean for disaster resilience in the region.

There are over 18,000 contributors to Caribbean projects on HOT’s Tasking Manager and 6 million buildings mapped (and growing). However, when one looks at the vibrant OpenStreetMap (OSM) communities across the globe, the Caribbean is conspicuously underrepresented both in formally established OSM groups and other user groups. It is therefore imperative that we take a closer look at how the OSM climate in the Caribbean is currently growing and changing; and what this could mean for the future disaster resilience of the countries in the region.

OSM Community Building and the Caribbean Reality

An OSM community is a multifaceted ecosystem that supports the use of updated digital map data via the OpenStreetMap platform. This includes persons who add data to the maps (mappers), persons who use this data (map users), and persons who support the ecosystem in one way or another; whether through advocacy, project management, administrative work, or funding (map supporters). Mapping communities play a pivotal role in ensuring that there is updated data that is free and easy to use when the need arises. Additionally, a well-developed local mapping community contributes exponentially to the quality of map data through more frequent field mapping and validation activities on the ground; as well as through the innovative use of technologies such as drones. Beyond this, mapping communities are able to incorporate local and cultural knowledge into their data collection and their mapping priorities. This ensures that the map that is developed best serves the needs of the local community.

There is definitely a need for updated map data in the Caribbean, with over 9 million persons in the region still living in areas with unmapped buildings. Moreover, in recent years the region has become increasingly prone to disasters, with intensified hurricane seasons, earthquakes, and even (though infrequent) volcanic eruptions, as experienced in Montserrat and Saint Vincent.

Open mapping data has long been proven to be a critical tool for disaster response and for building resilience. This data allows communities to efficiently access maps without the usual exorbitant costs of Geographical Information Systems (GIS). One of the most well-known examples of this is its use in the humanitarian action and response efforts during the disastrous 2010 earthquake in Haiti. There have been many such instances since then.

Furthermore, while OSM data does indeed provide a critical resource during disaster response, it also has a wide range of uses that expands into supporting sustainable development in several sectors including tourism, planning, application development, social development, and education. Thus, the benefits of ensuring that there is accessible digital map data for a country long before any disaster hits are many. By extension, the importance of a community to support this map and mappers is immeasurable.

Growth of a Sustainable OSM Caribbean Community

In July 2023, HOT’s Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) Hub supported the first-ever OSM Community, Partnership and Programming Event in the Caribbean region whereby open mapping and disaster response representatives from across the region met in Barbados. They presented and discussed the ways in which they were working to build resilience in their communities using OSM data and tools, and the potential challenges and opportunities in the region. The meeting saw the convening of the first OSM Caribbean group, a regional group with a focus on building both map data and the mapping community in the region.

When we look at the Caribbean, there are less than five OSM community groups. With limited resources and visibility, the efforts of those groups of dedicated mappers and the positive change that they have made in the region as it relates to map data is beyond commendable. Among these are budding groups such as the OSM Chapter on the island of Saint Lucia and the aforementioned cross-regional OSM Caribbean group, as well as longer-established groups such as OSM Cuba and COSMHANNE of Haiti.

The Caribbean mapping community is lacking in the level of organization that can better fuel improvements in open mapping data collection and use in the region. Not only are there insufficient organized communities to represent maps and mappers in the region but, those that exist need to be strengthened in areas such as visibility, governance, technical capability, and funding. Supporting activities such as training, peer-to-peer sessions across regions, and events such as mapathons and advocacy drives can contribute positively in this regard.

HOT has been instrumental in supporting efforts to build the mapping movements within the Caribbean. Most recently, the OpenCities Program, with the target countries of Jamaica, Dominica, and Saint Lucia focused on collecting data and developing map data products related to disaster response and building resilience. HOT also recently facilitated other community-building support activities such as the 2023 Peer-to-Peer Program via the HOT Community Working Group for Dominica and Saint Lucia. This is in addition to partnering with the Caribbean School of Open Data(CSOD) to pilot the Open Mapping Technical Training Program in Jamaica. Beyond disaster resilience, the initiatives seek to foster inclusion such as Girls Mapping for Disaster Resilience project in Trinidad and Tobago which focused on capacity building in the use of GIS for improving the disaster resilience of women and girls. This was executed via a partnership between GIS Society of Trinidad and Tobago (GISTT), HOT, and Caribbean School of Open Data (CSOD) under the Women-Centered Disaster Resilience in Small Island Developing States (SIDS) initiative.

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HOT’s recent advancements in supporting ongoing mapping initiatives and creating networking opportunities for the Caribbean region seek to improve both the map of the region as well as the community that supports it. The commitment to the continuation of these efforts is seen with the development of the HOT Caribbean Strategy and the appointment of a new team within the LAC Hub. In keeping with this commitment, the LAC Hub has already established key partnerships in the region with agencies like the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA), the Youth Emergency Action Committees (YEAC), and the CSOD via the Caribbean Open Institute. HOT’s actions within the region are focused capacity building and technical support in the areas of community building, disaster resilience, and innovation; as well as fostering inclusivity in the community with regard to gender and underserved communities.

While in the last decade efforts by both global and regional agencies and mappers have been quite successful in closing OSM data gaps for the Caribbean, the current state of the OSM community in the Caribbean highlights the importance of making greater efforts towards establishing a sustainable community of mappers within the region. The Caribbean OSM community is at a pivotal moment in its development, and to say the least, seems poised to map its way to a region with greater disaster resilience.