College of William & Mary students helping to create real-time maps of the damage and aid to Nepal after a massive earthquake (Photo by Lauren Harrison for AidData)

After an earthquake hit Nepal in late April, killing thousands, a College of William & Mary junior knew many students wanted to help but were unsure how to make a difference.

“We don’t have a lot of money – we could give $5, $10,” said Lu Sevier, a biology major.

“What we do have is computers – and a lot of us.”

Students at many schools, such as Howard, Princeton, and William & Mary, have been holding fundraisers to bundle lots of small donations. Sevier wanted to pool their efforts in another way: By crowdsourcing information, in real time, that people need on the ground.

Many areas affected are so rural they haven’t been mapped, and aid workers needed to know immediately where the worst of the destruction was — and how to get there.

She was already working with AidData, a collaboration between William & Mary, Brigham Young University and Development Gateway, that uses open data for international development, and planning to go to Nepal in the summer. AidData has been working with the government’s financial leaders to help track where aid dollars go. So when the 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck, they already had partnerships in place and quickly heard what was needed.


Lu Sevier at a mapping session (Photo by Alena Stern for AidData)

Sevier used social media to draw in more than 60 volunteers – during final exams, no less – to learn the mapping software. “They were really excited to have a chance to help,” she said.

It only took about 20 minutes to an hour to learn how to do it, she said, and now she keeps seeing students working on the maps around campus, at the library, at coffee shops.

[Here’s an example of one of the maps they’re producing; click on the left-hand column to see areas of massive destruction identified, damaged roads, and so on.]

They’re using existing crowdsourcing sites, such as OpenStreetMap and Tomnod, taking satellite imagery of before and after the quake, to pinpoint areas of massive destruction, closed roads, and tent and shelter villages.

She’s marveling at how powerful maps can be to coordinate and direct aid where it’s needed most. “I was super excited to find a way that we could help the relief effort right away,” she said.

“I’m hopeful for a lot of things,” she said, “First, that Nepal is doing okay, and that our continued work will make a difference… I hope it will get relief through quickly and efficiently, and that it will help track aid and ensure it’s getting where it’s needed most.”

[Incredible before-and-after photos of the damage.]

And she wants to create a culture at school that provides ongoing training and makes students aware of how they can help. “If there’s another disaster, and there are 100 students or 200 students that know how to use the mapping software, and we can turn out a map,  that can make a huge difference,” she said.

They are having an impact, said Dan Runfola, geospatial scientist at AidData and research assistant professor at the university; an international charity is using the maps to help guide its decisions in Nepal. “We were very, very glad to hear that,” he said.

The e-mails he gets from Nepal are extremely short, he said, but they are grateful in tone and the overriding message is: They want this data to keep coming.