What started as a Waterloo teen’s science fair project is now playing a pivotal role in the on-the-ground response to Typhoon Haiyan.

Andrew Ilyas, 14, has developed a program that sorts through tweets and other social media postings, pulling out pictures to give those planning the emergency response a better idea of what the situation looks like on the ground.

“Whenever a disaster hits, there’s usually a huge onslaught of tweets – in this case 200,000,” he tells CTV News.

“It feels really good knowing that I can make a difference.”

Ilyas’ program – part of a system called MicroMappers that is being used in the Philippines – is part of a growing field called crisis mapping, which first came to prominence during the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake in 2010.

The worldwide explosion of social media has made it easier for people co-ordinating rescue efforts to figure out which areas are most damaged and most significantly, as people tweet and post about what they see from their locations.

But even for social media experts, it would take far too long to search through individual tweets for that useful information.

Patrick Meier of the Qatar Computing Research Institute says finding the most important tweets is like finding a needle in the proverbial haystack.

“It’s exactly what we have, except we have a growing haystack,” he says.

Enter crisis mapping programs like Ilyas’, which parse the data, searching for the most useful postings and ignoring the rest.

Those postings are then passed on to emergency relief volunteers, who put them in context and pass along necessary information to front-line responders.

“This saves so much time and resources and money, and money is a big thing in humanitarian aid,” says Justin Mackinnon of the Standby Task Force, which is helping to co-ordinate the response in the Philippines.

Crisis mapping works better for some crises than others, but Ilyas says Typhoon Haiyan has led to successful results.

“In the Philippines, social media is really big,” he says.

“We were able to get a lot of really relevant pictures in real time.”

Part of that could be attributed to the prevalence of picture-taking mobile phones in the country – Mackinnon says more Filipinos have cellphones than landlines.