A geomatics specialist works with OpenStreetMap data. Photo by: jean-louis Zimmermann / CC BY

LONDON — “Mapping is Like a Box of Chocolates.” So wrote Maliha Binte Mohiuddin — then a disaster management student at Bangladesh’s University of Dhaka — in 2016. That year, Mohiuddin’s university opened a chapter of YouthMappers, an organization of students, researchers, and educators that uses openly available geospatial technologies to address development issues.

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Attending one of its training and “mapathon” initiatives — events where students gather for mapping tasks using tools including OpenStreetMap, or OSM — Mohiuddin found the experience an eye-opener that helped her apply her learnings to real-world situations and gain technical know-how.

With Bangladesh often hit by cyclones and flooding, she is well aware of the need for effective geolocation systems for disasters. “You’re really contributing in the humanitarian sector. … And that’s important for me,” she said. “Mapping makes me feel like a global citizen.”

While she completed her degree, Mohiuddin continued participating in events with YouthMappers, where she is now a regional ambassador and has interacted with mappers from all over the world.

Collaborative projects for mapping in disaster, health, and conflict situations are on the rise around the world as satellite technologies improve, becoming accessible for a much wider range of people worldwide. Many of these initiatives rely on volunteers, with students like Mohiuddin ideally placed to step in.

Technology potential

Alongside advances in satellite technology, YouthMappers is just one of a rising number of these programs established in recent years to help close the gap for the 2 billion people worldwide still estimated to live in areas without detailed maps.

Such initiatives allow mappers to improve location data to aid humanitarian organizations, even from afar — and in situations such as COVID-19 lockdowns. Validators and local in-country experts and volunteers can then check, ground-truth, and expand on this, improving knowledge on the identities of buildings such as hospitals, as well as other information.

For example, following a training session that Mohiuddin held at the University of Dhaka, she and the students interviewed displaced women in a slum in Dhaka’s Moghbazar area about mental stress, using both imagery platform Mapillary and analysis tool KoBoToolbox to collect data.

OSM forms a key part of many initiatives like YouthMappers, enabling volunteers to contribute to projects that others have set up on the Tasking Manager platform of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team — or HOT — by tracing buildings, roads, and other features. To supplement this, a range of tools are being used for mapping indoors and in the field, including Mapillary, KoBoToolbox, and drones.

The rapid growth of YouthMappers reflects the rising popularity of such efforts. Since the U.S. Agency for International Development’s GeoCenter and three founding U.S. universities launched the organization in 2015, it has built a network of over 5,000 university student mappers across more than 200 campus chapters in 50 countries worldwide.

“In the first 100 weeks, we had 100 chapters start,” said co-founder and Director Patricia Solís. “This is a movement more than just a project. … The students see themselves as not only preparing for being part of this new geospatial workforce, but also … practicing becoming global citizens and connecting to each other.”

Student support

This recent wave of collaborative mapping projects uses a large amount of data contributed by volunteers. Students and universities are ideally placed as a ready segment to help drive and sustain collaborative mapping projects, said Richard Teeuw, a geomorphologist and remote-sensing scientist at the University of Portsmouth in the U.K.

Teeuw runs a master’s course in crisis and disaster management, part of which covers satellite and geographic information systems. “We have quite a big cohort of students that we can call on to then act as volunteers,” he said — whether for long-term projects filling in gaps in maps required by the likes of collaborative project Missing Maps or post-crisis rapid-response initiatives.

In September 2017, the university organized a mapathon when Hurricane Maria tore through Dominica, damaging up to 90% of buildings. Using OSM and post-disaster satellite imagery from organizations Planet and DigitalGlobe, volunteers were able to rapidly map damage and pass it on to NGO MapAction for use by its in-country disaster response team.

Through the CommonSensing project, in which the University of Portsmouth is a partner, training and mapathons have also recently been carried out in the island nations of Fiji, Vanuatu, and the Solomon Islands to help boost preparedness locally.

These events have shown how rapidly data can be amassed, Teeuw said. “If you’ve got 20 or so people and they’re doing so many buildings each over the space of two or three hours, you can get through a lot of ground. That’s the power of crowdsourced mapping,” he said.

In Fiji, using satellite imagery provided by CommonSensing partner UNOSAT and guidance from a HOT expert, 51 university staff members, students, and officials from government agencies mapped about 12,500 buildings and 40 kilometers of roads in just three days.

Attendees can later host mapathons themselves, bolstering disaster preparedness skills among those with additional invaluable local knowledge, Teeuw said.

Collaborative mapping

At Missing Maps, collaborative mapping between a whole host of individuals and organizations has boosted the ability to gather key data, said Jana Bauerová, a communication and community engagement coordinator with the organization — whose founders and members include HOT, Médecins Sans Frontières, the British Red Cross, the American Red Cross, and YouthMappers.

The initiative aims for “better coverage of communities that would otherwise be forgotten, that literally were missing from the map”, Bauerová said.

“The students see themselves as not only preparing for being part of this new geospatial workforce, but also … practicing becoming global citizens.”

— Patricia Solís, co-founder and director, YouthMappers

Among these projects, MSF used data from Missing Maps volunteers who helped map Burundi during the recent malaria outbreak, with more than two-thirds of the country’s 11 million people reportedly infected by the disease since January 2019.

Volunteers initially traced nearly 90,000 buildings in the rural region of Ruyigi. On-the-ground teams could then follow up, spraying 97% of households with insecticide over a wide geographic area of one health district.

Yolanda Vazquez, a volunteer for Missing Maps, has brought the experience and skills she has gained from her time as a volunteer mapper into her full-time role as a GIS specialist at the Satellite Applications Catapult, a U.K.-based technology and innovation company.

Catapult, which is also a partner on the CommonSensing project, is aiding the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development with satellite-based approaches to support Yemen — a country that has been in the midst of a major humanitarian crisis since a civil war broke out in 2015 — using its expertise to provide a data-driven service to support the humanitarian community.

But that was a challenge. “The main problem when we started working in Yemen was the lack of data available,” Vazquez said. “To help vulnerable people, you need to locate them first. Without maps, you cannot reach everyone.”

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As Vazquez was already volunteering with Missing Maps, HOT trained her as a project manager, and she set up several Yemen-focused projects on its Tasking Manager to aid the humanitarian response for population displacement and events such as floods.

“It would be impossible for me to map the country myself,” she said. “But through the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap community, there are thousands of volunteers all over the planet mapping, because they believe these openly available maps can help make a difference in [low- and middle-income] countries.” That has borne fruit in terms of greatly improving the data, said Vazquez.

Better inclusivity

Mapping tools are also enabling a pathway toward greater inclusivity in projects around the world, with the number of people that can use them growing as the tools become easier to use.

“That’s one great thing about Missing Maps,” Bauerová said, “the flexibility and the collaborative aspect, the fact that it’s accessible to all.”

This has been aided by mobile apps for both mapping remotely and in the field, she said. MapSwipe, an app developed by MSF for Missing Maps and promoted as something people can use while at home or during their morning commute, allows volunteers to swipe through images, identifying those containing key infrastructure to help humanitarian organizations focus their efforts. Since its launch in 2015, over 30,000 volunteers have swiped through more than 1 million square kilometers.

Meanwhile, Mohiuddin said initiatives such as YouthMappers’ Let Girls Map campaign are helping build inclusive communities for female student mappers and supporting efforts focused on women’s and girls’ issues. “They’re promoting not only mapping; they’re promoting the voice of females,” she said.

The current moment is an “Earth observation revolution” that is helping more and more people come on board, Teeuw added. “It’s all the time improving in terms of capability and the groups of people that are skilled and trained up enough to use the basic information that’s out there. … It has become mapping for the masses.”

Visit the Data for Development series for more coverage on practical ways that satellite data can be harnessed to support the work of development professionals and aid workers. You can join the conversation using the hashtag #DataForDev.

About the author

  • Gareth Willmer

    Gareth Willmer is a freelance writer and subeditor based in London. His main coverage areas are science, technology and telecoms, as well as how changes and advances in these areas affect the developing world. He regularly works for publications including New Scientist and SciDev.Net, and previously worked as a subeditor for Nature.