Back in January 2010, Patrick Meier, a Ph.D. student in international relations at Tufts University, was checking email at home, with CNN on in the background, when he was jolted by a breaking news alert. An earthquake had struck Haiti, and tens of thousands were feared dead.
"I froze," he says. "Just paralyzed."
His girlfriend, Christine Martin, a fellow student whom he wanted to marry, was doing research in Haiti when the earthquake hit. Meier tried everything he could think of – phone calls, social media, Skype, text messages – to get in touch with her or anyone else who might know if she was safe, but couldn't get a response.
"It was one of those life and death moments when everything stops," he recalls, "and you know this moment will define what trajectory the rest of your life takes. Either the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with is no longer there, and that's completely changing my life. Or the person is safe and alive, and will come home and I'll get to marry her and spend the rest of my life with her."
Sitting around and waiting wasn't an option. "I'm going to go crazy if I don't do something," he remembers thinking.
What Meier decided to do was create a map – a real-time, constantly updated, online map of the earthquake damage that could be shared widely to help aid efforts.
Making a map may not seem like the most obvious reaction in the midst of a major humanitarian crisis – especially when you're 1,500 miles away – but for Meier, it came almost as second nature. He'd already spent several years studying the potential of such maps, known as crisis maps, while working with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, a research center focusing on humanitarian issues. "You can't protect what you can't map," he says.
Meier grew up in Ivory Coast, Kenya and Austria, where his father was a businessman, and has been obsessed with maps his entire life. He created what he now considers his first crisis map during the 1991 Gulf War in Iraq. As a 13-year-old watching reports of the war from home in Kenya, he plotted a paper map of the Middle East with key points during that conflict.
With the Haiti earthquake, he had a chance to put everything he'd been thinking about into practice. He and some friends and colleagues began pulling information from social media – Twitter, Facebook, YouTube videos – and added it to a base map to start to get a picture of the damage in Haiti. They plotted points on the map in red dots, indicating pharmacies that were open, which ones did and didn't have medicines, which roads were blocked, where people were trapped under rubble and needed help.
As the days went on, the effort attracted thousands of volunteers from 40 countries around the world, all wrangling tweets, text messages, videos, emails, Facebook posts and other messages. A special toll-free number was set up for people in Haiti to send text messages about their conditions and whereabouts. Meanwhile, Meier and his team in the U.S., including members of Haitian diaspora, worked around the clock, funneling a flood of information into a constantly evolving map.
"We were really just trying to soak up as much of this information as we could," Meier says. "And to be honest, we just barely soaked up a fraction."
Even so, all the information packed into the map could seem overwhelming when seen for the first time. Andrej Verity, a U.N. official who worked on humanitarian assistance in Haiti after the earthquake (and later co-founded with Meier the Digital Humanitarian Network), remembers his first glimpse of the crisis map, which arrived via email.
"I saw an online map of red dots and I was looking at it, going, 'This is interesting,'" he says. "But I very quickly realized there were several challenges and I thought, 'I'll investigate this afterward. The data behind it is a goldmine.'"
Meier acknowledges that challenges arose out of this unprecedented attempt to map and make sense of a fast-changing crisis.
"We made it up as we went along because it hadn't been done before," he says. "It wasn't easy, it wasn't perfect, but it started something."
Indeed, other search and rescue teams had started using the information on the map – including FEMA and the U.S. Marines. FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate tweeted a link to the map, saying, "Crisis Map of Haiti represents the most comprehensive and up-to-date map available to the humanitarian community."
And Meier later heard from a member of the U.S. Marine Corps, saying the map "is saving lives every day ... The Marine Corps is using your project every second of the day."
Since Haiti, the crisis mapping that Meier pioneered has helped humanitarian efforts in just about every major disaster – including last year's devastating earthquake in Nepal. His expertise has been tapped and recognized by the United Nations, World Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development and many others. Last year, he authored a book on "digital humanitarians" — who he defines as those who want to improve humanitarian efforts via digital technologies.
And these days, Meier is focusing on the humanitarian uses of robotics, including camera-equipped unmanned aerial vehicles — drones — that take hundreds of pictures that can be stitched together to create maps or 3-D models.
He believes using this technology will make crisis mapping even more effective for disaster response. It's a logical extension of his earlier work, he says.
"Just to be clear, these two worlds are actually the same world," he says. "What robotics allows us to do is collect that information that ends up on a crisis map in ways that we couldn't have done in Haiti. It's another way to gather data, georeferenced data that we can use to analyze disaster damage. It's just another way to collect information that ends up on a map."
In the immediate aftermath of the Nepal earthquake, which killed more than 8,000 people, cloudy conditions obscured the view captured in some satellite images. But Meier and his team were able to use drones to capture detailed images of damage around the capital, Kathmandu.
Through the nonprofit he's started, WeRobotics, Meier has been working with young Nepalese professionals to create a local "Flying Lab" that will be prepared to take on this kind of work in future emergencies.
"Local communities are going to be, and have always been, the first responders," Meier says. "They've got the local knowledge we don't."
Uttam Pudasaini, a 2014 Kathmandu University engineering graduate who met Meier at a training session Meier ran at the university, is the coordinator of the Kathmandu Flying Lab. He has been working to train others in how to operate drones.
"Now we can use drones to create hazard maps," Pudasaini says. "I want to build capacity inside Nepal so if there's any problem, we can solve it on our own."
For now, aerial drones come with certain challenges. For starters, they often bear negative connotations because of their association with bombing in conflict zones. Also, every country has different aviation regulations that must be respected when it comes to drone flights. Meier lives in Washington, D.C., for example, but can't practice flying a drone there because of the capital's no-fly zone. Instead, he drives some 50 miles into Virginia.
A lack of coordination and professionalism in drone use after disasters – sometimes by foreign tourists or companies with the best intentions to help but no experience in disaster response and no knowledge of local laws – adds to the challenges in a new and fast-evolving field.
"There's still lot of lack of clarity that makes it difficult, when sitting at a global scale, looking at how we deploy drones to emergencies," says Verity. But, he says, "It's getting better and better."
Meier believes robots can be used in Nepal and elsewhere for purposes beyond disaster response — in wildlife protection, for example, or to help assess agriculture or the health of glacial lakes that are at risk of bursting due to rapidly melting glaciers.
These days, Meier is busy at home, too. He's a new father. And his baby's mom is Christine Martin — the girlfriend he was so worried about in Haiti. She survived the quake, and they were married in 2013.