Mapping a way to humanitarian relief

CNU Professor leads event aimed at helping humanitarians with the power of maps

Mapathon: A community mapping event. Flyers advertising this marathon of mapping have appeared on campus advertising boards and decorated the walls of academic buildings. But what is a Mapathon? Why would anyone spend two hours of their precious weekend in a computer lab drawing a map?

Dr. Johnny Finn, the CNU professor co-organizing the event, understands the niche appeal that mapping has, but he emphasized the humanitarian aspects of this event. “We have partnered with various humanitarian organizations, such as Doctors Without Borders, to map the unmapped rural areas of lesser developed countries.”

Doctors Without Borders is an international humanitarian organization that works in conflict zones and areas affected by disease. While Mapathon events happen all over the world and focus on a variety of different areas, this one will focus specifically on health-related issues in the Central African Republic, a landlocked country in central Africa next to Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Cameroon. 

The Central African Republic has been suffering from outbreaks of malaria and ebola, but humanitarian efforts are often unable to reach certain populations of the country. This is mostly due to a lack of knowledge of where people are located outside of cities and how to reach them. 

While services like Google Maps are extremely helpful for most people trying to figure out where to go, there are large areas of the world that are currently “unmapped” effectively. Satellite imagery of these areas exist, but so far, no one has mapped out all the small villages, towns and the roads that lead to them. 

This is where OpenStreetMap enters the picture. A free crowdsourced mapping project, people from all over the world pore over satellite data and map out these unmarked areas of the maps and contribute to the OpenStreetMap database. 

“These places, these parts of the world, they aren’t empty. They’re full of people, full of roads that need to be mapped out,” said Finn. “We need to know where people are and how to access them, if we want to plan for humanitarian relief.”

Not one to let others do the work for him, Finn has partnered with Dr. Federica Bono from Old Dominion University to organize a dual-location Mapathon for the Hampton Roads area at both CNU and ODU. Two sessions of roughly twenty people (a morning session from 10 a.m. – 12 p.m. and an afternoon session from 1 p.m. -3 p.m.) will gather in Luter Hall on Nov. 16 to contribute to this global mapping initiative. 

Because of the nature of crowdsourcing map data, Finn does not know exactly what area they will be mapping out on Saturday, but it will likely be several of the small villages in the Central African Republic in preparation of a countrywide mortality survey that will be distributed early in 2020. 

Despite the ambitious and serious goals of the project, there is room for fun as well. Finn promises music, pizza and some friendly competition as well. Through OpenStreetMap, it is possible to track how many buildings, roads and waterways people add to the map. It can even assign scores to them. In addition to a few prizes offered to the most efficient mappers, there will be a live stream connecting the ODU location and the CNU one, hopefully leading to a bit of friendly rivalry. 

Never mapped before? Finn said, “No experience necessary. We will train everyone how to interpret satellite data and trace it onto the OpenStreetMap.” 

“It’ll take about 20 minutes to get everyone set up and trained, and then they can spend a couple of hours mapping,” Finn said. “It won’t be a super intense affair, but it also won’t be a boring affair,” he promised. 

Ultimately, he hopes that people come away from Mapathon with a better understanding of the importance of maps, especially in less developed areas of the world. “Mapping is not something just done for fun. It is fun, but it also has a real-world purpose and will benefit countless people.”

“I want people to think about the importance of putting places on the map, especially in the context of climate change and natural disasters.”

If you wish to participate in Mapathon, you must sign up for one of the sessions through a Facebook event. The event is free, and the form will remain open until all the spots are full. 

Two hours isn’t an abundance of time to map, but it is enough time to get a good feel for the program and get a lot of good progress done, according to Finn. “Plus, you get pizza,” he added with a laugh. 

This Mapathon is more than just tracing buildings and roads on a computer, it is a chance for participants to contribute to a global project that will aide humanitarian efforts for years in the future.

~Matthew Scherger, Editor-in-Chief~

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