Celina Agaton recently returned to the Philippines, hoping to help out her homeland with her unique set of skills.

“I’m really excited because it’s been about five years since I’ve wanted to do something like this for my home country,” said Agaton.

The Filipino-Canadian, who grew up in Manila and Jakarta but now calls Toronto home, arrived in the devastated southeast Asian country in late November, about two weeks after the typhoon killed more than 6,000 and left 4 million displaced.

Agaton, who's working in the country as a cross-sector community organizer, is part of a crisis-mapping community that emerged just before the 2010 Haiti earthquake and has transformed in the past three years from a loose group into a more formal entity relied upon by relief agencies in disasters.

The so-called crisis mappers lend a technological helping hand to traditional humanitarian groups, finding ways to harness social media and use new, easy-to-use open-source tools to create live maps of damaged buildings and food needs in disasters.

In the past month, 1,500 mappers made 4.2 million edits to help relief efforts in the Philippines — equivalent to about two years' worth of work by a cartographer, said John Crowley, a researcher with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative who studies the intersection of crisis mappers and traditional relief.

"I have never seen such a thing. It's incredible," said Crowley. "And the data that we're getting is quite good.... We'll probably look at it as something to build a model for the next disaster."

Disaster prone and technically inclined

The modern concept of live crisis mapping began in Kenya when developers created an open-source platform, Ushahidi, to collect SMS reports of violence at polling stations during the 2007 election and then mapped them in real-time.

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Filipino-Canadian Celina Agaton spent time in the hard-hit city of Tacloban as part of her efforts to bring crisis mapping to her home country. (Courtesy of Celina Agaton)

Since then, crisis mapping and other crowdsourcing tools have been used in some way or other in numerous disasters.

“It’s very easy to use, so someone with zero technical expertise can set it up very quickly,” said Agaton.

Some experts in the field suggest the disaster-prone Philippines may be a perfect testing ground for live crisis mapping and other tools.

Andrej Verity, who works for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA), says there's a cultural willingness to try new ideas, a technically-inclined young population eager to help in disasters, a government open to new ideas, and general awareness about disasters.

"The population does not often forget about the humanitarian cause," the Saskatchewan-born Verity said in an email from Manila.

About 20 tropical cyclones enter the island nation’s region each year, with about six to nine making landfall on one of the Philippines' 7,107 islands. Located along the Ring of Fire, the disaster-prone country also suffers from numerous quakes, volcanic eruptions and landslides.

Typhoon Haiyan, the Philippines' deadliest typhoon, marks at least the second time real-time mapping has been used in the Philippines.

From clipboards to MicroMappers

Patrick Meier, who pioneered the new field of crisis mapping, recently returned from his first trip to the Philippines. He was working with UN OCHA, which he describes as "one of the most forward-thinking, innovative groups out there."

Though it’s Meier’s first time in the country, it’s his second time pairing up with UN OCHA to help in a Philippines disaster.

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MicroMappers was released shortly after Typhoon Haiyan to try harness the crowd in helping to sift through Tweets calling for help. ((Courtesy of MicroMappers))

Two days after Typhoon Bopha hit on Dec. 3, 2012, UN OCHA asked the Digital Humanitarian Network, a group of volunteer and technical communities co-founded by Meier and Verity, to help it sift through 20,000 tweets to map damaged homes, wiped-out roads and deaths. It helped create a picture of what kind of aid was needed most in different areas.

This time, Meier used a micro-tasking tool called MicroMappers to get volunteers around the world to sift through tweets, categorizing them for use by the big aid agencies.

Also in the works is an SMS short code, to be released early next year, where residents can text their ongoing needs. It'll be the first time since Haiti that the system will be used nation-wide. During that crisis, grassroots organizations set up the code only to be overwhelmed by thousands of Creole texts pouring in. 

Now, those impromptu players in the disaster field have established themselves alongside the disaster relief bigwigs — and the two are working together.

Crowley says even though the ingrained disaster response culture is to turn to the tools they already have, the emerging crisis mapping communities are helping them explore new tools.

"Don’t forget, we’re not very far away from a time when people carried around clipboards and push-to-talk radios," said Crowley. 

He hopes that in the future, the time-consuming work done by the crisis mapping communities such as sifting through satellite images to find damaged buildings will free humanitarian agencies up to focus on high-level analysis.

Combining crowds and algorithms

Meier expects that the next stage for the community is using advanced computing to help make sense of the inundation of social media cries for help during a major emergency.

As director of social innovation at the Qatar Foundation's Computing Research Institute, he's working with his team of data scientists to develop algorithms that could alleviate the burden on volunteers around the world by helping categorize tweets and handling other tedious tasks.

"It's combining the wisdom of the crowds with the power of algorithms, and doing that in a smart way so that we don't waste people's time," said Meier.

Disaster relief is a field in dire need of efficient help. Whereas a decade ago, about 30 to 40 million people needed humanitarian aid each year, now it’s typically around 60 to 70 million, the United Nations says. On Dec. 16, the United Nations asked for a record $13 billion in aid it expects to need in 2014.

Humanitarian costs are only going to rise, making it essential that the traditional agencies embrace new technologies and figure out how to incorporate the use of cellphones and social media that's changing the way they respond.

Agaton, like many in the field, is eager to tap into the possibilities and has lofty visions for her time in the Philippines.

"I’m trying to sort of shift the role of crisis mapping here," said Agaton, who will be working on cross-sector mapping with the Philippine Disaster Recovery Foundation.

She hopes to use live mapping to track the progress of aid, using social media to verify whether medical supplies and food get into the hands of those in need.

For now, she’s busy with the dirty work of data collection — trying to synchronize the many ways agencies collect their data before a combination map can be put out.

Whatever comes of it all, Agaton hopes to help her home country prepare for its inevitable next disaster.

"Monsoon season is going to happen within the next six months," said Agaton. "And so we’re going to be in this very same situation all over again."