Usefulness of Google Earth/Wikimapia as risk predictor and damage/ resilience assessment tools

This activity was contributed by Charlene Sharpe, Rutgers University, and was inspired and is based on an original assignment created by Professor J. Kenneth Mitchell, Rutgers University, Geography Department for graduate students but modified by me for a lower level natural hazards class
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Initial Publication Date: April 11, 2014


Students will use the tools available in Google Earth and Wikimapia to assess risk, disaster and resilience in urban settings. Using ONE case study city, chosen from New Orleans USA, (Katrina 2005) OR Port-au-Prince, Haiti (earthquake 2010), students will work in pairs to complete this five (5) steps exercise analyzing the evidence of hazards that is obtainable from aerial photographs contained in the popular Web-based sources Google Earth and Wikimapia, and assess its utility in predicting risk and assessing resilience and damage in comparison to other sources of non-visible or non-material information that are available to researchers. Students will also develop a "photo-scaling tool" to visually analyze their results.

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Learning Goals

The goal of this exercise is two- fold:-

a. To assess how the concepts of risk, resilience, hazard and vulnerability are applied to a real life event
b. To ascertain the usefulness of employing specific web based (open source) technologies to assess damages and predict risk in urban areas

This activity aims at developing critical thinking skills, temporal and spatial reasoning, data analysis through the use of Google and wikimapia, synthesizing and organizing ideas, evaluating decision i.e. justifying, checking, hypothesizing and experimenting; interrogating modes of knowledge production and interpretation

There are other skills that this activity aims to develop – lower order skills as well as technical and strong communications skills. Students will be able to find, recall and retrieve information as well as explain and summarize ideas and concepts. Students will get the opportunity to hone their writing and oral presentation skills as well as learn to use web- based aerial photographs.

In this activity risk is addressed as the likely of harm to populations in cities as well as damage to infrastructure, buildings, housing and the economic base of the society. Resilience is being looked at in terms of what citizens have done to withstand the impact of any hazard on their city in relation to their housings, building, general infrastructure and population well-being. Some of these attempts at understanding risk and disaster and also resilience can be assessed given their visibility – deaths, damage and losses, better building, where people build, economic activities and so on...but others are invisible and non- material and will pose a challenge for assessment through Google Earth and Wikimapia. Geoscience is framed as a method of thinking and understanding the earth through the use of spatial and temporal reasoning and observation of the earth.

Context for Use

This activity is designed for a 200 level natural hazards geography class, 25 students, 4 year university. This is the term's major project that aims at synthetizing the concepts the students would be engaged with through-out the term. No expert knowledge or perquisite knowledge of Google earth or Wikimapia technology is needed. The main outcome of this activity is a Report however, the activity will culminate in a capstone presentation to the department and interested stakeholders and can easily be adapted to other settings.

Description and Teaching Materials

For this activity students will:-
1. Students should choose one of the following statement of the problem to guide his/her response:
a) Google Earth/Wikimapia aerial imagery provides useful data about the exposure of human populations and the built structures to the risks of earthquakes or floods and less information about vulnerability in the city of choice
b) Google Earth/Wikimapia aerial imagery does not provide useful data about the exposure of human populations and the built structures to the risks of earthquakes or floods and less information about vulnerability in the city of choice
2. Students should give:-
a) a brief history of the risk, within the country, associated with the particular hazard event chosen over a 50- year period and represent this data as a timeline or table

b) give an overview of the city, specifically : historical development;
built environment (types of construction e.g. high rise/residential; tenements, suburban
tract housing, informal housing etc.); principle economic base; socio-economic composition of neighborhoods; and general infrastructure.

3 Student will:-

a) Select one neighborhood within the city to analyze. Provide geographical coordinates or other information that fixes the location. Describe the buildings (construction materials, heights, number of storeys, roof type), building lots, neighborhood sites (including any open spaces) and main environmental features that might pose hazard.

b) Develop a photo scaling tool to visually capture the building damage. An example of a photo scaling tool sheet is provided as Table 1.

4. In relation to the physical risks, exposure, vulnerability and response related to the hazard, student should, assess any TWO types of information that can be gathered from the photographs and ancillary resources (e.g. ground level views of the same locations).

5. Student will :-
a) Produce a term Report discussing the findings, saying what are the advantages and disadvantages of using Google Earth and Wikimapia as a disaster and resilience assessment tool and risk predictor as well as assessing these tools' significance for the study of hazards in cities.

b) Do an oral presentation to faculty and interested stakeholders on their findings.

Broward county website gives a visual of what the populated table could possibly look like – level of damage and photographs - Retrieved April 11, 2014

Table 1 Photo - Scaling Tool Sheet (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 12kB Apr11 14)

Teaching Notes and Tips


As this activity is a semester long activity – weekly updates are reported, queries answered and progress on the activity made. Students are awarded extra points through- out the semester for these weekly activity and report.

References and Resources

2010 . Haiti earthquake:country factfile The Telegraph December 22 available at retrieved December 22, 2010

2010. Measures to prevent natural hazard losses. Scoop World available at
retrieved December 22

2007. Successful Response Starts with a Map: Improving Geospatial Support for
Disaster Management. Available at: retrieved November 29, 2010

2006. Frazier: Dallas' Lower Ninth Ward. The J. McDonald Institute Research
Briefs available at
retrieved December 23, 2010

Anjaria, Jonathan., 2008 . On street life and urban disasters, lessons from a "third world" city. In Steinberg, Phill., and Shields, Rob.,2008 (editors). What is a city? rethinking the urban after hurricane Katrina. University of Georgia Press, USA

Colton, Craig E.. Perilous Place, Powerful storms:
Hurricane Protection in coastal Louisiana. University Press of Mississippi. Jackson (2009)
for an analysis of the complexities of hazard management in NO.)

Dessauer, James., and Armstrong, Avery., 2006. Physical, economic and social attributes of the new orleans ninth ward .New Orleans Planning Initiative. Cornell University. Available at retrieved
December 23, 2010

Gill, Tony., 2006. Google earth a disaster management tool. Available at retrieved November 5, 2010

Godschalk, David., Brower, David., and Beatley, Timothy. 1989. Catastrophic coastal storms. Durham, NC: Duke University Press

Matthews, Kevin., 2010 Haiti's earthquake – an architectural perspective. Architecture Week. Jan 13 Available at: retrieved December 1, 2010

Montoya, Lorena., 2003. Geo-data acquisition through mobile GIS and digital video: an urban disaster management perspective. Environmental Modeling and Software 18 (10) :869-876

Myrtho Joseph and Wang, Fahui : density patterns in Port-au-Prince, Haiti: A model of Latin American city? Cities, Jun2010, Vol. 27 Issue 3, p127-136.

NATHAT 2010. Analysis of multiple hazards in Haiti. Available at
retrieved December 20

Priyono, Juniawan., Purwanto, Hadi.,Dulbahri 2007

Ray, Aparna., 2009. Disaster management and the role of ICTs. Available at retrieved November 5, 2010

Shields, Rob.,2008. Delta city. in Steinberg, Phill., and Shields, Rob.,2008 (editors). What is a city? rethinking the urban after hurricane Katrina. University of Georgia Press, USA Steinberg, Phill., and Shields, Rob.,2008 (editors). What is a city? rethinking the urban after hurricane Katrina. University of Georgia Press, USA

US Department of Housing and Urban Development, 2006. Current housing unit damage estimates: hurricane Katrina, Rita and Wilma, February 12, 2006 as quoted in Steinberg, Phill and Shields, Rob.,2008 (editors). What is a city? rethinking the urban after hurricane Katrina. University of Georgia Press, USA