How online maps are helping Haiti rebuild after Hurricane Matthew

How online maps are helping Haiti rebuild after Hurricane Matthew

Since Hurricane Matthew swept through Haiti last month Paul Uithol and a team of volunteers have been using online maps to help rebuild devastated communities, as he explains to Moira Holden Modern disaster relief is about data as much as food and shelter. In the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, the most powerful storm to hit the Atlantic for a decade, aid agencies in Haiti have been using data from OpenStreetMap to plan the distribution of vital supplies to areas of the country. ‘Not everywhere is covered by Google Maps, and in particular not the less developed areas that also have little resources and capacity to prepare for and respond to natural disasters,’ says Paul Uithol of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT). ‘The least mapped countries are those which have massive issues.’ The 34-year-old became involved in HOT two years ago, having started using OSM as a student at the University of Twente. ‘It struck me immediately as an awesome and very powerful way to make use of the OSM platform,’ he says. Established in 2006, OpenStreetMap (OSM) is dedicated to providing a web platform to create a free and open map of the entire world. The American Red Cross is one of the agencies that used its data as it helps to rebuild Haiti. Crucial information on roads, buildings, schools, hospitals and shelters helps it to the priority areas in Haiti and estimate what support they need. Most data supplied by HOT comes from volunteers – the organisation has been working on disaster response projects with the help of local communities. Relay race Paul's background is in telematics – a combination of electrical engineering and computer science – and cartography. Paul worked with friends on a system to try to keep track of the runners in the Batavierenrace, the world’s largest relay race, to ‘try to find some order in the chaos’ of 8,000 runners travelling over a 200km course. ‘We initially made some horrible mistakes in our usage of maps and treatment of cartographic detail,’ he said. However, with the help of the Faculty of Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation of the University of Twente (ITC), his team developed the Batavieren Positioning System (BPS). After university Paul founded a company in location-based services, using lots of open geographical data and services on projects for government agencies, including the Dutch railway network NS. ‘Some years and companies later, I found myself in Dar es Salaam, and in a position to apply my combined cartographic and management knowledge in a completely different context,’ he says. ‘It’s been an incredible experience since then.’ 'Pure crisis management' Paul has also been to Tanzania and Uganda to galvanise communities into carrying out mapping exercises to help with the severe seasonal flooding. In Dar es Salaam, the objective of the project is to map all of the drainage and water systems of the city with the help of students and volunteers. The collected data will be worked into improvements to the infrastructure so that preventive measures can be taken to reduce the threat of flooding. Many of the volunteers in Tanzania had been directly affected by the problem, so they are highly motivated to make a difference. ‘Universities are perfect locations to find bright, young people willing to take on difficult challenges,’ says Paul. ‘Moreover, these are also the people that often turn out to be the future leaders in their country and can benefit a lot from the experience and knowledge gained. ‘Being in the middle of it, at times it can be pure crisis management. It’s very hectic and things will go wrong in new and unexpected ways just about every day. There are cultural challenges because management styles differ in effectiveness in different cultures, or time is not regarded as so important, making it hard to arrange appointments or have people be when and where you’d like them to be.’ Global reach HOT has 23 staff and 20,000 volunteers around the globe. For Haiti over 2000 users contributed more than 2.5 million map edits, based on imagery before and after the hurricane – some of the data had already been available since the 2010 earthquake. Medecins Sans Frontieres is another important partner for HOT because it uses OSM data to co-ordinate vaccination campaigns, fumigation, and contact tracing – during the Ebola crisis – as well as other actions to stop the spread of disease. Following the Nepal earthquake in 2015, a unit of the Canadian Armed Forces used crowdsourced data, satellite imagery and highly detailed maps to reach remote villages. More OSM data helped to direct aid in the wake of major landslides in Sri Lanka in April last year. ‘I don’t really see myself going back to commercial software engineering any time soon,’ says Paul. ‘The work I’m doing with the communities in Uganda, Tanzania and in other countries is immensely rewarding, and I really enjoy seeing so many people grow and learn so much during these projects and to be able to play a part in that.’  More >

Dutch health insurance: check your policy

Dutch health insurance: make sure you check your policy Dutch health insurance premiums and provisions fluctuate every year so it is definitely worthwhile checking whether your current insurance policy still suits your needs and your budget. The end of the year is the time when Dutch health insurance companies go all out to attract new customers with tempting offers and special deals. In fact, the difference between the cheapest and most expensive health insurance policies on offer in the Netherlands will go up to over € 250 euro in 2017, according to So shopping around can cut your health insurance bill by a tidy sum. However, price is not the only thing you should take into consideration when comparing health insurances. Chances are your current policy does not meet your specific needs or wishes anymore. For example, why should you cover yourself for maternity care or orthodontics when your children have already left the family home? Too much choice? This all may sound easy, but there are so many different...  More >

My Dutch rental housing hell

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British royal paintings back in The Hague

British royal painting return to their spiritual home of the Netherlands Works of art owned by the British royal family are back on Dutch soil in an exhibition, At Home in Holland, at the Mauritshuis, The Hague. By Moira Holden The paintings now on loan from queen Elizabeth II were originally collected by her predecessors during a surge of enthusiasm for the Dutch artists of the Golden Age. Most of the 22 paintings on display today were bought by George IV during the early 19th century. This royal collection is considered one of the most important collections of Dutch art anywhere in the world and reflects the huge influence the artists from the Netherlands had on the English art world. The first purveyor of the English monarch’s artworks in 1625 was Dutch. ‘The style appealed to English collectors,’ explains Jane Choy, guide at the Mauritshuis. ‘The genre of painting everyday life and its details was popular until the mid-nineteenth century before the rise of the Impressionists. England had a close relationship with Dutch art because...  More >

Amsterdam Light Festival brightens up

Amsterdam Light Festival brightens up dark days From tulips to lace, from the experimental to the spectacular, this year's Amsterdam Light Festival involves 35 art installations across the city, giving locals and tourists a light spectacle during December and January. By Julia Corbett Picked from a selection of 1800 applicants, designers, architects and artists have contributed from all over the world to create light art that is innovative and designed specifically to be showcased in Amsterdam. Now in its 5th year, Amsterdam Light Festival can be enjoyed by water on canal tours and on foot when the walking tour opens later this month. Laser lights have been used to show off of some of the city's most famous buildings, while massive tulips that dazzle and change colour are among the top pieces of art that can be enjoyed while aboard canal boats in the city. Launching this year’s festival, chairman Felix Guttmann said: 'There are three reasons for doing this festival, to give artists the chance to showcase the most...  More >

'Home is where the heart is'

‘I’ve lived all over the world and home is where the heart is’ Rhode Island native Scott Mongeau works in Amsterdam as a data scientist. His path to the Netherlands began on the other side of the world in the mid 1990s. He currently lives in Leiden with his wife and dog. How did you end up in the Netherlands? Through my wife. I met her while I was studying in Melbourne, Australia. That was in 1995. We were living in a house for international students and things progressed. We had to decide what to do to avoid visa problems because we couldn’t spend more than three months in each other’s country. We were young and crazy so we said, ‘Let’s get married! If it doesn’t work out that’ll be OK.’ But it did work out and we’ve been married now for almost 20 years. How do you describe yourself – an expat, lovepat, immigrant, international? I suppose I started out as a lovepat but later converted to an international as a result of our relationship. We ended up getting citizenship in each other’s countries so she has US citizenship...  More >

A confrontation with death

How a day trip to Amsterdam turned into a confrontation with death A day trip to Amsterdam to catch a film and do some Christmas shopping ended up becoming a train journey Brandon Hartley will never forget. It was just another perfectly normal Sunday. I went up to Amsterdam to see a movie and buy a few early Christmas presents. As the sun was setting, I joined a few hundred people waiting on Platform 1 at Amsterdam Central to cram themselves and all their shopping bags onto a crowded train. I managed to find a seat in a second class compartment across from a woman reading a Murakami novel. A group of international students were chatting in English across the aisle. As the dusk turned to darkness, we rolled through Haarlem and on towards Leiden. Somewhere north of Oegstgeest, the train’s driver hit the horn. Its wheels screeched against the rails while he pumped the brakes. I bounced around in my seat like I was on a ride at Efteling. Then we all heard a chilling noise. It sounded like a stick getting dragged across an old wooden fence....  More >

10 of the best: Readers' photographs of NL

10 of the best: readers photograph the Netherlands To celebrate's 10th anniversary, we asked our Facebook page friends to submit their favourite photos which they think best sum up the Netherlands. Yes, all the cliches were there, but so was Albert Einstein. Here are the five winners and the five runners-up. This photo had so many votes on Facebook, we suspect a little help from family and friends. But it was also a winner with the team. This reminds us of walks on a chilly winter's day. We know clogs are out of fashion among all but Volendam fishmongers and farmers, but we wonder if these were ever actually worn? You can't get more Dutch than skaters passing windmills in the snow. Fingers crossed we have a winter like this again soon. This has definitely been through some sort of filter but we like it. We love the idea of Albert Einstein as an Albert Heijn worker, complete with carrier bag. But could some bright spark please enlighten us... E=ah2? It wouldn't be...  More >

Trump, Zwarte Piet and Wilders

Trump, Zwarte Piet and how to prepare for prime minister Wilders Election Day 2016. Too bad America won’t have its first female President. But we hope you enjoy America’s first president who’s legally insane, writes Greg Shapiro. Congratulations America, you just had your own Brexit moment. And - in classic American fashion - it was bigger and badder. Yes, the Brexit campaign featured misinformation and xenophobia. But the Trump campaign had all that plus p***y grabbing, pathological lying and Russia-mania! And in America - just like in Britain - on election day it looked like cooler heads, saner heads, would prevail. It wasn’t politically correct to think otherwise. Perhaps that’s why so many people lied to the pollsters. And perhaps that’s why we might continue to end up with hotter, insaner heads in charge. In the Netherlands, one politician’s head gets so hot it even bleaches itself platinum blonde: the populist politician Geert Wilders.  Not a good year From the US to the EU, it is NOT a good year to be in the ruling class....  More >

A bike helmet would be a cultural afront

For the Dutch, wearing a bike helmet would be a cultural affront While in Amsterdam as a visiting professor at the VU University, Clay Small realised the superiority of Dutch culture when compared to the US is best illustrated by their attitudes to bikes. Sure there are differences in the size of our countries. One’s a socialist society, the other a capitalist bastion. The Dutch painstakingly preserve their 17th- century art and row houses while we remain ever ready to move on. So what if the Dutch citizens of all colours and creeds gel just fine? Hey, we’re working on our issues. No, the hallmark of our differences is in the attitude to cycling. We all know Amsterdam is a river of bicycles from sun up to sun down. There are more bikes than people in Amsterdam, where 67% of the citizens commute by bike daily. The bikes, like Amsterdam’s citizens, come in every colour and shape. Some are lovingly cared for, others look barely functional. Transport Some seat one, two, three, even four! Many bikes have a three-foot basket between...  More >

Asscher: don't ignore real injustice

Lodewijk Asscher: Ignore real injustice at your peril The one lesson to be learned from Brexit and Trump is that ignoring real injustice comes at a price, says social affairs minister and Labour leadership contender Lodewijk Asscher. The results of the US elections will be scrutinised for a long time to come but one thing is clear: the left must never again humiliate or disregard voters. Clinton’s ‘basket of deplorables’ was more than just a slip of the tongue. What it showed was a an unwillingness to understand why people are angry or frightened. It is wrong to talk only of a sense of discontent. In many cases there is real injustice: labour migration leads to lower wages. Unfair competition leads to insecure contracts. Globalisation wipes out entire professions. The people at the top of the tree are getting richer and the middle groups are left behind. If that is the daily injustice people experience and there is no credible alternative to vote for, they are cornered. And if progressive parties limit themselves to an explanation...  More >