Humanitarian Mapping with Scrum “Relays”

A new model for community based mapping efforts in Columbus, OH.

Screenshot of Downtown Columbus taken from the JOSM (Java OpenStreetMaps) Map Editor

As Columbus, Ohio is in the midst of a Smart City overhaul funded by the US Department of Transportation, city stakeholders are looking at innovative ways to facilitate community engagement on a technical level. As hackathons and meetups have set the tone for previous efforts, one group out of The Ohio State University is creating a new model to optimize participation and output. This new model is referred to as a Scrum “Relay” model. While Scrum “Sprints” are common ways of managing deliverables among software development teams, “Relays” differ in that (similar to a Track & Field relay race) the participants change after each Sprint. To explore why this model makes sense, let’s take a quick look back to common experiences of hackathons and meetups.


From the annual Columbus GiveBack Hack to Ohio State’s Brain Health hackathon, the tech community in Columbus has used hackathons to rally its community around experimental new solutions to public needs. The Smart Columbus team has even organized several hackathons that have resulted in a variety of new ideas to implement as part of the Operating System that the city is building. While these events prove effective in generating ideas, a major problem is that projects from hackathons often fail to be sustained beyond the event itself.


As groups of freelance developers and other hobbyists begin developing a network of individuals with similar interests, a common next step is to create a Meetup group that gathers often after work to share developments on their individual projects, and find ways to collaborate and experiment on their hobbies. While technical meetup groups can be very engaging, one problem that is often experienced in these groups is burnout. Participants often invest a lot of continued long-term commitment, and often after engagement over a long period of time they often give up on projects without some kind of tangible output.

Scrum “Relays”: The Best of Both Worlds

Here’s the basic layout of a Scrum Relay, and this is the actual schedule that teams will use to begin the Humanitarian Mapping Relay Cohort in Columbus.

Beginning tomorrow at the Smart City Open Data Enthusiasts (SCODE) Meetup, among a number of other smart city data efforts already underway, a group of digital mappers will establish the first set of benchmarks to be completed to address mapping needs that are identified during the meetup. These will be a mix of local and global mapping needs. These SCODE Meetups are a part of the larger whole of the Smart Columbus Initiative, and will serve as the Scrum Review Meetings for the Mapping Relay group (the blue boxes on the chart above).

Then, for the next month a cohort of students and developers will meet on a weekly basis (the green, purple, orange, etc. colored blocks on the chart) to actively contribute to the mapping tasks using an assortment of open-sourced digital mapping tools.

This weekly mapping group will meet at a STEM focused Education Innovation Lab known as the PAST Foundation on evenings. New mappers will be brought up to speed with the tools quickly thanks to efforts of the OpenStreetMap (OSM) community. This is a global community of digital mappers that constantly improves and operates the world’s largest open-sourced mapping database. …Because why recreate the wheel if something already exists. As the OSM community’s tools were built for Humanitarian needs first, every new participant will be on-boarded by contributing to a set of tasks listed on the Humanitarian OSM Task Manager. This is standard process for any group using OSM tools, and will set the tone for the work these groups participate in.

The important note about this strategy is that at the end of that month at the next SCODE Meetup, that group of mappers reviews their work, concluding that Sprint, and a new group is chosen for the next month. So those initial participants are done. There is no existential burden on a participant to keep going week, after week, after week for eternity. One can join in at another SCODE meetup, and if they’ve got a month that looks clear they can choose to contribute to that month’s needs, but they can also choose not to, and feel perfectly fine about it. This may seem trivial, but burnout is real, and over time people need a change of pace. This model keeps things fresh, and keeps the ball rolling.

Question: Do I have to stop after one month?

No. Participants are encouraged to keep contributing, and continue to develop/share their expertise, but it’s also important to take breaks.

Mapathon for USAID coordinated at George Washington University

Monthly Cohorts: How do we find new participants?

Out of OSU’s John Glenn College of Public Affairs is The Battelle Center for Science, Engineering, and Public Policy. This group will maintain a Core Team to coordinate events, and to assemble a new group of participants each month consisting of a mix of High School students, College students, and Professional Developers. As the PAST Foundation serves as a hub for all of the STEM Schools in Central Ohio, each month the Core Team will engage a different school to get a group of students to participate. Based on needs identified through the SCODE meetups, relevant student involvement groups on campus will also be invited to participate, bringing in data from their own sources, and more knowledge on their specific issues. Then, developers and other entrepreneurs from the community will have the opportunity to work on solutions that may turn into business or job opportunities.

As the Smart City initiative is a collaborative effort, there are several problems that the city needs to address that aren’t any one group’s fault, and each month there will be a host of organizations working to help solve these problems together. Given this environment we will be placing a lot more technical community focus on each issue, and we think this will create a ripe environment for real solutions to grow organically, and really be put to the test. We’re starting with a few use cases laid out, although as we get through those and test this model we will be looking for other issues to work on. There’s a lot of opportunity to incorporate more ideas into this, so come meet the community, get involved, and make your mark on the map.

Let The Mapping Begin!

That’s all. We look forward to seeing you at the first SCODE Meetup this coming Tuesday, August 7th (TOMORROW!). If you miss that, simply reach out to the Core Team by emailing and we can get you in the loop.

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