Floods, storms, and earthquakes always seem to hit poor communities hardest. Could satellite mapping programs like Google Earth and Wikimapia help people better prepare for such disasters?
Marion Clement, Princeton, N.J.; School of Arts and Sciences; geography major with a cultural concentration, French minor; president of the Rutgers Undergraduate Geography Society (RUGS), member of the SAS Honors Program Artists' Collective, facilitator for the GO Outdoors program
"We had a wonderfully balanced relationship with Professor Mitchell—we learned a lot from him, but he gave us the freedom to shape the project," says Marion.
When Rutgers students MARION CLEMENT and KAE YAMANE—both geography majors—became interested in research that could help people, they knew where to go: Rutgers' Aresty Research Center.
"I was interested in doing independent research, but I also wanted faculty guidance. The Aresty Program allows faculty members to guide students through research projects while also giving them the opportunity to explore on their own," says Marion.
Kae Yamane, North Brunswick, N.J.; School of Arts and Sciences; geography major with a concentration in geographic techniques, Japanese minor; secretary of the Rutgers Undergraduate Geography Society (RUGS), volunteer Japanese tutor with the SAS Honors Tutoring Project
"I wasn't aware of the Aresty program before applying to Rutgers. It was a challenging and worthwhile experience," says Kae.
"I was drawn to the very human focus of this project, especially its potential to help real people halfway across the
world during an actual natural disaster event," says Kae.
At Aresty, Kae and Marion learned about The Shantytown Mapping Project being conducted by JAMES MITCHELL, PROFESSOR OF GEOGRAPHY AT THE SCHOOL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES.
"Web-based mapping tools make it possible to inspect the physical makeup of cities and provide important evidence about the exposure of neighborhoods to natural hazards," says Professor Mitchell. "The Shantytown Mapping Project explores the potential uses for these tools in assessing the disaster vulnerability of these neighborhoods in large cities."
Kae, Marion, and Professor Mitchell wanted to know how useful Google Earth, Wikimapia, and Google Planimeter could be: Could these tools provide information detailed enough for disaster plans?
The group focused on Mumbai, India, "for its high-quality satellite images, numerous shantytowns, and annual monsoon season," says Kae.
"We looked at the satellite images and analyzed data we collected on shantytown roof counts, area, population estimates, elevation, and distance from water bodies," says Kae.
Then, the students compared their data to the Mumbai Human Development Report. "We looked for a pattern of percentage error in our comparison so we could see to what extent these maps are valuable to research," says Marion.
"Google Earth images can be used to assess shantytown distribution, land use, housing and human occupation patterns, development trends, and natural disaster vulnerability," says Kae.
"The tools are user-friendly," says Kae, "so even non-specialists can analyze the data. With access to these tools, shantytown populations may be able to raise awareness about their own communities' vulnerability and organize disaster mitigation efforts."
Kae and Marion presented their research at the Annual Association of American Geographers Meeting, where they took second place in the poster competition.
"Professor Mitchell was an ideal mentor: patient, approachable, and always willing to advise us whenever there were obstacles. Marion and I nominated him—successfully—as Aresty Faculty Mentor of the Year!" says Kae.
"It is gratifying to have a hand in shaping the careers of such promising young professionals and to develop the sort of partnerships that turn into personal friendships," says Professor Mitchell.
After graduation, Marion plans to attend graduate school and continue pursuing research. Kae is still deciding whether to apply to graduate school or look for employment. She's considering studying either cartography and geographic information systems or graphic design.
Professor Mitchell has high hopes for what's next for shantytowns: "The residents of these disadvantaged places, nongovernmental organizations, or other community-based organizations now have a new tool they can use in lobbying for measures that will reduce vulnerability to hazards," he says.