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In the aftermath of a deadly earthquake in Afghanistan and the strongest hurricane to hit the Western Hemisphere, Utah college students are stepping in to lend a hand by way of a few keystrokes.
On Monday evening, students from the University of Utah and Brigham Young University were using satellite images to paint a more detailed picture of the damage caused by the pair of disasters, and reveal the best routes to bring aid to the regions.
"This is our way as geographers of contributing to that relief," said Tim Edgar, a U. associate geography instructor.
As of Monday evening in Utah, officials 7,000 miles away in Pakistan and Afghanistan said more than 260 people had died in the 7.5 magnitude quake felt across South Asia on Monday. Hurricane Patricia soaked Mexico after landfall Friday, but none were reported dead in the storm.
At the U. on Monday night, an anticipated three dozen students and some alumni plugged into laptops and noshed on pizza for crowdsourced crisis mapping.
Participants across the world will use satellite snapshots from before and after to reveal damage and possible transport routes for emergency responders. The students are hoping the pictures will help government agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders and other aid and recovery groups.
"If we can get 30 people together, all working on a map," said geography master's student Seth Bishop, "it can really make a large impact."
Other mappers by Monday had already outlined over 90 percent of the affected Mexican coastal areas, but more inland tracing was needed.
The U.S. Department of State and private companies have donated the images, which are specific enough to reveal buildings, roads, rivers and lakes.
On campus at the U., students will pull up the images through OpenStreetMap, a shareable online data set akin to a Wikipedia for topography. They will trace and download trends in data, as well as lines and polygons that can be used for deeper analysis.
The U. is joining an association of volunteers for OpenStreetMap who have stepped in after other natural disasters, including the earthquakes in Nepal, Haiti and Japan.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Join the effort
On Monday, Oct. 26, the University of Utah's geography department will hold a rapid response event for anyone interested in crisis mapping. The event will be held in Orson Spencer Hall, Room 175, from 5 to 10 p.m. No experience is required, and a 15-minute on-site training session will be offered. Free pizza will be provided. Participants should bring a personal laptop.