Brussels / 30 & 31 January 2016


Interview with Blake Girardot
Putting 8 Million People on the Map:. Revolutionizing crisis response through open mapping tools

Photo of Blake Girardot

Blake Girardot will give a talk about Putting 8 Million People on the Map:. Revolutionizing crisis response through open mapping tools at FOSDEM 2016.

Q: Could you briefly introduce yourself?

It is my pleasure to speak with you. By way of introduction, my name is Blake Girardot and I am currently the Vice President of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team. I have been a volunteer mapper and mapping coordinator with HOT for the past 2 years, first joining in response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. All of our board members are volunteers, so to keep a roof over my head, I moonlight as an independent technology consultant to small and medium sized businesses.

Q: What will your talk be about, exactly? Why this topic?

One of HOT’s missions is to serve the world’s most vulnerable populations around the world through generating geographic data, also known as mapping. Tens of millions of people live in places where there are literally no maps, something difficult to imagine for most of us in well-mapped countries. My talk is going to be about how our work helps to improve and save lives around the world, how we are accomplishing our goals and how our success would not be possible without open source software and open data. Many of us in the OSS community already know our work is important and impacts people’s lives, but HOT’s efforts supporting humanitarian field work directly on the ground is probably the clearest possible use case of OSS saving lives and make lives better for the world’s most disadvantaged people. We wanted to share this story with the greater OSS community to pass on our thanks and the thanks I hear everyday from humanitarians around the world who benefit from the OSS model and open data.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish by giving this talk? What do you expect?

I would love it if people who hear this talk walk away with a sense that their work and their contributions to the OSS community is more meaningful than they have imagined. Everyone who supports the OSS model, in whatever area or aspect, has in a real way contributed to the successes HOT has seen on the ground helping people. HOT and OpenStreetMap would not exist and would be as strong, diverse or successful as they are today if it were not for the greater OSS community.

Q: What’s the history of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team? Why was it started and how did it evolve?

The story of HOT is very closely tied to the story of OpenStreetMap in general. From the very earliest days when the founders of OpenStreetMap were talking about their somewhat crazy idea of mapping the entire world through open tools, open data and open collaboration it was recognized that the project would not only generate a free and open data set of places that already had map data, but tied up in closed systems, but that for the first time, places that had been ignored for mapping, frankly places where there was no economic justification to map, could be mapped. It was recognized from the very beginning that OpenStreetMap could be as much of a humanitarian effort and project as it was a technology and open data project.

Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team was formed by a group of OSM enthusiasts already doing humanitarian work and recognizing the benefits of high quality maps to those efforts. It started out quite small, informal and by necessity, inexperienced in crisis and disaster mapping because it had not really been done in a grassroots, self organized way before. It quickly became apparent the need and demand for the mapping work by traditional humanitarian organizations was way beyond what a small group of friends was going to be able to accomplish. So they looked for a structure that would allow them to expand and improve their work, and HOT as a legal entity was formed in 2010 and received its non profit, charitable organization status shortly thereafter.

It is still a grassroots volunteer organization today, but now with thousands of community members world wide working on mapping projects. HOT and our partners are mapping to support and are conducting field work in about 20 countries around the world and many other countries with online-only mapping support for local communities, government and non governmental organizations and their humanitarian projects.

Q: In what ways can a mapping project help with disaster recovery efforts?

Disaster response and recovery are very much about geodata and logistics. What area is affected? Where are people living? What roads are available to reach the affected areas? What about hospitals, clinics, bridges, dams, radio towers, power plants, shelters, landslides, displaced persons camps, etc?. All of that information can be tracked and made actionable with mapping. Many of the places most affected by disasters are also the poorest and least developed. Data we take for granted in the more developed world just does not exist for those parts of the world. Crisis and humanitarian mapping helps to fill that gap when disasters strike. By getting better information about populated places, roads and infrastructure, people directing responders and resources can make better decisions and make them more quickly.

In many instances, satellite imagery is the only available means to assess damaged areas, find villages covered by landslides or leveled from shaking. Aerial assets for flyovers just are not available in many cases. But with some luck with the weather and daylight, quick targeting of satellites by the international operators and then review and mapping by the crowd can help start gathering that information in a matter of hours.

And as the recovery efforts transition from rescue to rebuilding that initial map data set gets refined, expanded and is an asset available for the long term rebuilding process.

Q: What are the biggest success stories in open source mapping for humanitarian purposes?

The biggest success to me are the places we map in advance of a crisis. We do amazing work during a crisis and help save lives, but playing catch up with map data when people are buried under rubble is something we want to avoid at all costs. Many of the places where lives are lost are not secret and the disasters they are affected by are not surprises. We know where floods happen every year, we know where earthquake zones are, we know where malaria and cholera kill hundreds of thousands of people every single year. We need to generate the detailed map data needed for humanitarian work now, before the next crisis and HOT along with many partners around the world are working to do that every single day of the year. Those are the biggest success stories to me, when people, volunteers, NGOs, funders and local communities come together to recognize the problem and work on generating map data ahead of time while building into the local community the skills to keep that information up to date. Those are the success we need more of. We have some great examples of that happening and it was the motivation for HOT to be a founding member of the global Missing Maps project.

Q: How can interested people get involved?

If you want to dive right in to humanitarian mapping, the Start mapping page at Missing Maps is probably the best resource.

But there are lots of ways to contribute besides mapping of course: tools development, documentation, answering questions, fundraising, project planning, etc. All the typical challenges of a community-supported project + field work around the world, we need help with all of them.

Our website talks a lot about the projects we run and you can always shoot an email to and you will get a response usually within hours from one of our core team members, probably me! Or drop into our IRC channel and say hello at

Q: Have you enjoyed previous FOSDEM editions?

FOSDEM is an amazing event and provides such a great atmosphere to easily connect with talented, caring, hard working people from around the world who are dedicated to open and free software. Enjoyed FOSDEM is nowhere near descriptive enough, it is just a priceless opportunity and there is no way to thank all the people doing the work to put this event on enough for their time and efforts.

Creative Commons License
Creative Commons License

This interview is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Belgium License.