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Following Hurricane Laura’s destructive trip across Southwest Louisiana, geospatial specialists from the Crowdsourcing Unit of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) approached GISCorps with a request for volunteers. They were working on a new project to improve the efficiency of their initial structural damage assessments using aerial imagery and automated change detection algorithms; this effort would get help to the people who need it faster, so GISCorps was eager to help.

Using the USA Structures national building outlines dataset produced by Oak Ridge National Laboratory, FEMA geospatial scientists planned to use an image classification algorithm to detect and assess damage in post-storm aerial imagery. The machine learning algorithm would detect structural damage within the building outlines. To ensure the most accurate analysis results, the building outline data needed to be cleaned and updated to align with baseline NAIP imagery, a time-consuming task that had caused delays in the past.

To overcome that obstacle, FEMA collaborated with Esri Platform Configuration Engineer Payten Samuels to quickly build a custom Hub site with an embedded editing app. To divide the work into tasks, the app included a grid of tiles that volunteers could check out, editing the building outlines within their tile to avoid duplication of efforts. The Hub site also had a leader board, detailed instructions, and an ever-expanding list of frequently asked questions.

After GISCorps Core Committee members tested the app, project manager German Whitley sent out a call to volunteers asking for help checking, updating, and adding building outlines. The recruitment was first sent to volunteers living in the affected region and later to volunteers living in other parts of the United States. 126 volunteers answered that call and worked together for five days to edit 43,609 building outlines and to digitize 27,325 additional buildings.

Special kudos to volunteers Brad Fisher, German Whitley, John Barden, Mia Maschal, Angela Rienzo, Karen Scanlan, Erin Arkison, Brandon Goblirsch, Charles Page, Thomas Croson, Peg Gronemeyer, Shannon Haggerty, Jim Cory, Yushan Li, Alyssia Church, Jessica Randall, David Cleland, and Nadine Trahan, each of whom added or edited over 1,000 polygons. Brad Fisher topped the leader board with over 4,400 structures!

FEMA staff reported that a this project was a first for them and that they were extremely pleased with the outcome. They also reported that the updated building outlines would be shared back to Oak Ridge National Laboratory so that they can re-incorporate them into the USA Structures data set.

Project Complete.

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