Snow In Toronto citizen mapping

Open source citizen mapping platform Usahidi has been successfully was used in helping citizens, relief workers, etc. in crises around the world such as the Kenyan post-election violence, Haiti earthquake and most recently, a snowstorm in Toronto.

Yup, you read it right. A snowstorm in Toronto calling for a whopping 30cm. But don’t snicker just yet. I think this was a great scenario for testing citizen mapping during a disaster. Better to be prepared when a real big thing hits.

I first heard about this on Twitter where it’s common to read whiny tweets about the snow no matter how little. However, I was intrigued by the use of Ushahidi in this case. So, I volunteered my time in the testing and montoring of Snow in Toronto. We are fortunate to live in an area without major disasters and catastrophes so this is a good time to get an hands-on experience at citizen mapping.

I was part of a team moderating incoming reports. It was a great experience to donate my time and skills as part of something that was made to keep people safe. A far more productive Twitter experience than plowing through loads of tweets (in my own Twitter stream) of people complaining about the snowstorm.

This is my interview with CrisisCommons Community Working Group co-lead, CrisisCamp Toronto City Lead and CrisisCommons Canada lead, Heather Leson.

HL: CrisisCamp Toronto is part of a global network of volunteers who use creative problem solving and open technologies to help people and communities in times and places of crisis.

We have mapped, wikied, tweeted, brained, created software and managed information for crisis and emergencies in Haiti, Chile, Pakistan, and New Zealand. In December, we held Canada’s first ever Random Hacks of Kindness. It was a joint event with Open Data Toronto and RHoK with projects focused on both local and international humanitarian needs.

Our goal this year to bring our skills home for Canadian crisis and emergencies. We are meeting with emergency managers, government officials, technical companies and universities.

We decided that the best way to show the potential of crisismapping in Canada was to map a snow storm as a proof of concept. This was, or Snowmap.

DR: What is citizen mapping?

HL: Citizen Mapping comes in many forms and tools.  Citizen mappers and crisismappers aim to achieve a number of things:

a. Describe what is seen (categories, pictures and videos)
b. Describe what is needed.

It is visual storytelling and a communication tool. A map is only as effective as the collaboration that builds and maintains it.

DR: What tools does CrisisCamp use?

HL: CrisisCamp and other volunteer technical communities use every tool you can imagine to communicate and collaborate. We use skype, google docs, (etherpad), conference bridges, slideshare, twitter, facebook…you name it. There are many types of mapping communities and tools. is the largest group of mappers who use various types of mapping tools. This is really the main forum for all types of mapping questions from openalgeria to The community has conversations about privacy, security, mapping needs/questions and more.

OpenStreetMap is the biggest open source crowdsourced map. They have a goal to have every citizen map their neighbourhood. And, it has been used for amazing projects like or by the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap team in Haiti. Although it can be complex to learn, you can easily submit changes via the bug tracking system and guaranteed someone in Germany (the largest contingent of OSM) will add it in for you.

Sahana Foundation, a disaster management open source toolkit, also has some mapping tools.  Sahana started after the tsunami in  2004. They have a number of modules for every aspect of disaster management. They have robust mapping capabilities and even damage assessment tools. Google CrisisResponse provides many mapping tools and support. Google maps are often used as base layer maps for responses. Plus, has a team of dedicated people (Google Crisis Response Team) who help with complex mapping needs. They also have Google Person Finder. or are crowdsourcing, open source mapping tools. This tool has been used for emergencies, voting, and community building.

Crowdmap is a beta “in the cloud” crowdsource mapping tool. It is for smaller projects not expecting high load. Ushahidi is far more customizable and requires a server install. It has iphone app capability.

DR: Can you share some of your learnings from Snow in Toronto?

HL: We decided to do a protoype for Snow in Toronto on Our goals were: refine our workflow, research and collect our resources, train our community and show our partners in government and the media. We met all of these.

The CrisisCamp Toronto core team is David Black, Melanie Gorka, Brian Chick and myself. We work very closely together to build our community. We built the map and associated processes in about 6 hours with each of us contributing our unique skills. Then, we spent the next day sending out communications and training CrisisCamp volunteers.

The number of reports was under 100. We decided to not set up a full scale project with an SMS feature or put all the reports from twitter, facebook or the media. We focused on individual filed reports via the web form. We had just under 1000 unique views. We received recognition from various levels of government across the country and from emergency managers. It has opened up some great conversation which will help us in future plans.  Again, our goal was not a large ramp up for Snow in Toronto, but just to test.

The team is testing our own install of Ushahidi. At CrisisCamp Toronto last week, we brainstormed on projects and will be collaborating for Canadian scenarios in the coming months.  Crisismapping has a responsibility to do no harm, help communities and work in partnership, whenever possible, with the existing emergency management processes. Social media in Canadian emergencies is a growing field. We hope to bring mapping into everyday life to have citizens help each other.

There are three skype windows open on my desktop. We are monitoring the CrisisCamp New Zealand response. This was a global collaboration effort of many groups including CrisisCommons, CrisisMappers, Ushahidi, Sahana, Humanity Road and Geeks without Bounds. The magic is that we can be digital volunteers crowdsourcing around the world.

Here are some links on what is happening: is a massive crisismapping project with many volunteers around the world. I know that if something happened in Canada I could set up Ushahidi and activate our volunteers in Toronto to train citizens here. Plus, we could count on our global friends to lend a hand teaching and mapping. It really is one of the most amazing adventures and I am so proud to be part of these communities.

DR: How can people participate in CrisisCamp?

HR: You can join at at Podcamp this weekend. We have a twitter account @crisiscampto for all the updates.

Or, you can check our googlegroups: and our wiki