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You are here: Home Bulletins 2023 spring Ground zero: Navigating in freedom

Ground zero: Navigating in freedom

by Free Software Foundation Contributions Published on Jul 07, 2023 11:36 AM
Contributors: Alper Atmaca

In the early morning of February 6, 2023, the southeastern part of Turkey was shaken with unprecedented tremors. As a personal rescue volunteer, I was ill prepared for my duties in the aftermath of this earthquake. However, my country was even less prepared for this moment. Major disasters bring a lot of challenges to anyone who tries to operate in the affected zone. Modern infrastructure, while having immense capabilities, can also be very fragile. Buildings collapsed during Turkey's recent earthquakes. The electric grid also went down, taking with it almost every utility, which we all-too-often take for granted, including the most fragile modern utility, the Internet.

Every first response has this conundrum. Being self-sufficient is of paramount importance, and there are many utilities and services that are necessary in order to achieve a successful response. Navigation services, for example, are necessary because an emergency team first has to triage the damage, and this requires accurate location and mapping. Only after that is it possible to divert resources and reallocate them to the correct locations. How would you do that if all you have used and know is proprietary mapping systems that have a hardcoded dependency on a continuous, fast broadband connection?

Enter OpenStreetMap (OSM).

At ground zero, OSM provided us with the mapping that we very much needed. When I was finally able to arrive in the area and was first deployed on the field, nobody was yet able to navigate properly. Along with much of our critical equipment, our dedicated GPS devices were sent somewhere else because the location of the earthquake's epicenter was misjudged, and almost all the personnel were trying to use their data connection to download the same maps over and over again in order to respond to every direction given by the command center. It was in this setting that I introduced a powerful free software tool called "OsmAnd~" (OSM for Android), along with pre-downloaded maps that I had on my handheld device, which I was using to flawlessly navigate through the city.

When others saw this, it was received by the group as "magic." Not only could I navigate offline, but I was able to process meaningful Universal Transverse Mercator (WGS 84 UTM) coordinates, which are critically useful in outdoor maps, where referencing needs to be done by hand. This makes coordinating teams over single-channel, low-bandwidth radio systems extremely easy. These coordinates are hidden from the user in all proprietary mapping systems and with no way to bring them to the fore -- not even in a crisis!

Another challenge we faced was working with limited electrical resources. Batteries only last for so long, and charging takes so much time and power. Therefore, we needed a way to print accurate maps to paper, because paper maps require no batteries or electricity. OSM's maps are ready to print, without restriction, even in these harshest of conditions.

Internet access and electrical resources were not the only problems solved with OSM. Navigational needs, for example, are not just limited to finding your destination. Functionality to help you find a way to get there is also a requirement. And there isn't a worse place on earth one might navigate than a major urban area recently inflicted by a major earthquake. While all other sources cared not about the issue, the world's OSM community took it upon themselves to harness the free (as in freedom) nature of OSM and map the undermapped areas in Turkey and Syria -- and they did so incredibly quickly! Thousands of volunteers around the world mapped millions of buildings and their damage in mere days while the Turkish community were providing readymade layers of the data via VPN over satellite link, whose direct connection to OSM servers was being censored counterproductively by the Turkish government! The outcome was a detailed map of the damaged terrain, marked without draining any of the already scarce human resources from the field.

Through this experience, we felt how the power of volunteers in free software communities, such as those working on OSM development and mapping, can exceed what governments and corporations merely pretend to provide.

Stay safe and keep mapping.

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