At least 400 are dead and more than 2,000 are injured after an earthquake ravaged Ecuador this weekend, and those numbers are expected to rise as aid agencies make their way into the ruins. It’s being called the worst natural disaster to hit the country since the 1970s—so what can you do? Plenty, it turns out, and you don’t even have to leave your desk to help. Tomnod, a group mapping initiative that scours satellite data to solve real-world problems, is looking for volunteers to identify earthquake-damaged areas for first responders.
The concept is simple: Participants can look at recent satellite imagery to identify and tag things like damaged buildings, impassable roads and areas of major destruction. The project is owned by DigitalGlobe, one of the world’s largest providers of high-resolution imagery of Earth. But the initiative is anything but commercial—crowdsourced data will be passed on to aid agencies who can then use it to prioritize their missions and get to the places most in need of help.
This isn’t the first time Tomnod has mobilized map-reading individuals around the world to help people in need. In 2012, volunteers helped the UN map the locations of thousands of Somalian refugees in just a matter of hours, and in 2014, they mobilized a virtual (and unsuccessful) search party during the hunt for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
It turns out that mapping is a great way to get services to people in need, whether it’s done on the ground or from afar. As Lou Del Bello writes for SciDevNet, humanitarian workers can use satellite imagery for everything from figuring out how best to distribute funds to predicting violence.
For now, the biggest priority in Ecuador is simply figuring out who needs help. The 7.8 magnitude quake took place off the west coast of the country, but its effects are being seen throughout the country. Entire towns have been decimated by the event and its aftershocks, prompting Ecuadorean president Rafael Corra to estimate that rebuilding the country will cost billions of dollars, as Al Jazeera reports.
In a less connected past, people really were powerless to help unless they donated money to humanitarian response efforts or made their way to stricken areas themselves. But in a digitally connected world, there are other options, some of which are as easy as looking at a few maps. The gesture may be small, but every tag helps—even if you never leave your seat.