Crisis Mapping Pioneer Focuses On Humanitarian Uses For Drones
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
When Patrick Meier hears about a major humanitarian disaster, his first instinct is to make a map. In the past six years, he has pioneered the lifesaving field of crisis mapping. It's been used in emergencies from the Philippines to Haiti. All this month, we're meeting inspiring people who innovate to change the world around them. We're calling them bound-breakers. NPR's Hannah Bloch has our next story.
HANNAH BLOCH, BYLINE: On a cold gray afternoon back in January 2010, Patrick Meier was checking email.
PATRICK MEIER: I was on the phone with my legs up and with my laptop on my lap.
BLOCH: He was a Ph.D. student in Boston and was half-listening to CNN in the background when he heard this.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED: This is CNN Breaking News.
WOLF BLITZER: We're just getting word of a major earthquake in Haiti.
MEIER: I mean, I froze - just paralyzed.
BLOCH: Because his girlfriend, the woman he wanted to marry, was in Haiti. She was a fellow student doing research there when the earthquake struck. Meier was frantic to find out if she was safe. Reports were that thousands were dead, but he was 1,500 miles away and couldn't get through to anyone who knew.
MEIER: I can tell you it was one of those life-and-death moments where everything stops, and you know that this moment will define what trajectory the rest of your life takes. And I was like, OK, either the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with is no longer there, and that's completely changed my entire life, or the person is safe, and I get to marry her and spend the rest of my life with her.
BLOCH: He couldn't bear to just sit there and wait, so what he decided to do was create a map - a real-time, live, constantly updated, online map of the earthquake damage in Haiti. He and some friends started pulling information from social media.
MEIER: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube videos coming out.
BLOCH: And adding it to a base map to get a picture of damage in the country. They plotted key points in red dots on an online map.
MEIER: Roads, bridges, buildings - we started getting information on different pharmacies being open, people being trapped under the rubble.
BLOCH: Now, Meier had already spent the past few years studying the potential of such maps, known as crisis maps, to help humanitarian work. He grew up in Africa and Europe and has loved maps his entire life. Now was his chance to put everything he'd been thinking about into practice. From a nerve center in his dorm room, Meyer and a team of volunteers worked round the clock for days. A flood of information came in on tweets and texts. These are some that he's saved that are being read by actors.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (Reading) I am not dead. I am under the rubbles in Universite Caraibe. Please come and get me.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (Reading) (Foreign language spoken) Multi Pharma on Rue Lamarre in Petion-Ville is open. You can go there to buy medicines.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (Reading) And I have two people that is still alive under the buildings still. Send help.
BLOCH: As the days went on, thousands of volunteers pitched in from 40 countries. They all added information to a constantly changing crisis map, at times a blur of red dots indicating cries for help and signs of life or obstacles and danger.
MEIER: So we were really just trying to soak up as much of this information as we could. And to be honest, I mean, we barely soaked up, you know, a fraction.
BLOCH: But it was helping. Some search and rescue teams started using the information on the map. The Marines were using it. A tweet came from the head of FEMA saying...
MEIER: This is the most comprehensive and up-to-date information available to the humanitarian community and then linked to our map. And that was surreal.
BLOCH: Since then, the crisis mapping Meier pioneered has helped save lives in just about every major disaster. And his expertise has been tapped and recognized by the U.N., World Bank, USAID and many others.
MEIER: We made it up as we went along because it hadn't been done before, and it wasn't easy. It wasn't perfect, but it started something.
BLOCH: Now fast forward six years.
MEIER: So I'm just going to make it fly.
BLOCH: Meier is 38 and still obsessed with mapping, and the next frontier he's exploring is robotics, including drone technology. He says drones will make crisis maps even more effective for disaster response. Today, he's practicing flying one of his own drones.
MEIER: We're at the Sylvania Farm and Vineyards.
BLOCH: In Leesburg, Va., about 50 miles from where he lives in Washington, D.C.
MEIER: The reason we won't be doing this on the Mall is because actually there's a no fly zone around Washington, D.C.
BLOCH: It's a hot, sunny day. He's wearing a baseball cap.
MEIER: All right.
BLOCH: And he steps into the shade to type some commands on his iPad.
MEIER: It's really becoming very simple.
BLOCH: And launches the drone, which levitates and flies off over the vineyard.
(SOUNDBITE OF DRONE HUMMING)
BLOCH: The drone is equipped with a camera that takes hundreds of pictures.
MEIER: What you can do with drones is you can collect imagery and stitch the imagery together to create maps, so to create 3-D model.
BLOCH: Meier says this can be very useful in detecting damage after a disaster. And all of this matters, he says, because...
MEIER: You can't protect what you can't map. You can't change what you can't map.
(SOUNDBITE OF DRONE HUMMING)
BLOCH: He knew this mattered in Nepal after an earthquake killed some 8,000 people in April of last year. In some areas, satellite images showed mostly clouds. That's where drones became useful. Meier and his colleagues were able to use drones to capture detailed images of damage. Now the most important thing, Meier says, is helping people around the world to take on this lifesaving work themselves when emergencies hit. He's teamed up with young professionals in Nepal already through his nonprofit, WeRobotics.
MEIER: I get emails at 2 and 3 o'clock in the morning. Patrick, I've got a new idea on how we can do this when there's a next disaster. We could do this and this and this. What do you think? I mean, that energy and that - just - oh, just - it's enough to keep me going for years.
BLOCH: These days, Meier's pretty busy at home, too.
(SOUNDBITE OF BABY CRYING)
BLOCH: He became a dad this year. And the baby's mom?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Let's get giggly. Let's get giggly.
BLOCH: Well, that's the girlfriend he was so worried about in Haiti. She did survive, and they got married in 2013. Hanna Bloch, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.