Mapping the Unmapped for Global Good

Youth around the world are supporting humanitarian efforts and international development through mapping

YouthMappers chapters around the world. / Julia Kleine, created on Mapbox

Imagine a classroom in west Texas filled with 50 students, ranging from PhD candidates to undergraduate freshmen, majoring in everything from education to architecture. All volunteering together — at 7 p.m. on a Friday — to support a project thousands of miles away: the President’s Malaria Initiative in Kenya.

How could that be possible?

This was the scene of a “mapathon.” Students huddle around computers, generating geographic data by tracing satellite imagery. In doing so, they help map the unmapped parts of the world that are the focus of many development programs.

In this case, the students in Texas were searching satellite imagery to locate Kenyan households and roads in areas with a high risk of malaria. That information was valuable to teams on the ground who were spraying insecticide to fight malaria-carrying mosquitos.

The volunteers were not limited to Texans, though. Students from Nigeria — where it was 1 a.m. — were Skyping in as they actively mapped the same area and added to the ongoing discussion of the function geospatial data plays in locating households at risk of malaria.

The editor view of OpenStreetMap /OpenStreetMap

Two years ago, I walked into an event much like this and had my first experience mapping and using geospatial data to support humanitarian and development issues around the world.

I was hooked.

I attended that first mapathon because I was interested in the role that geospatial data plays in development work. However, I left fascinated by more than the technology. I wanted to understand how students were engaged on these projects, not only remotely, but within the countries that are at risk and in need of data. I wanted to learn more about the international collaboration between these student networks.

My participation in the first Texas Tech University mapathon hosted by USAID Geographer Carrie Stokes and Dr. Patricia Solís of Texas Tech University launched my now active role in the open mapping community and ignited my passion for sharing my skills with students across the globe.

Shortly after my entrance into the mapping community, in 2015 YouthMappers was founded as a result of a collaborative effort between my university Texas Tech, George Washington University, West Virginia University and the USAID GeoCenter.

YouthMappers events are centered around the open source platform OpenStreetMap. Youth use the platform to draw unmapped buildings, roads and rivers by tracing recent satellite imagery of the area. This open source mapping and the OpenStreetMap community as a whole have earned a place in the spotlight largely due to their significant role in development work and disaster relief. The platform allows volunteers from all over the world to create data that can be used immediately by agencies and development workers.

Click and drag this interactive slider to explore a before and after of data creation around the 2015 earthquake in Nepal.

Perhaps the most famous example of the OpenStreetMap community’s significant impact was the overwhelming response from volunteers after the devastating 7.8-magnitude Nepal earthquake of 2015. In the hours and days following the earthquake, over 7,500 volunteers around the world helped map affected areas of Nepal. The data created in OpenStreetMap was used to support the Government of Nepal, UN agencies, USAID and international organizations in responding to the earthquake.

YouthMappers is a growing global community that continues to use this open platform to contribute to development and connect communities. In a little over a year since launching, the community has expanded to 67 chapters across 23 countries, many of which are in countries where USAID works.

The impact of YouthMappers goes far beyond the creation of open data. It brings mapping into the classroom and uses the university network to build students’ mapping skills and expand the open mapping network.

Photo of Julia Kleine and participants of the YouthMappers’ workshop in Belize. / Dr. Lauren Griffith, Texas Tech University

The slogan of YouthMappers is, “We don’t just build maps. We build mappers.” Perhaps my best example of this is my experience in Belize as a YouthMappers visiting open data scholar. As open data scholars, my university group hosted a YouthMappers’ workshop at Sacred Heart College in San Ignacio, Belize, an area that commonly faces flooding. The workshop focused on building local skills through training in Global Information Systems (GIS), OpenStreetMap and YouthMappers organization leadership skills.

How did we do this? We hosted a mapathon.

Only this time, unlike the mapathons we host in Texas, we started off mapping what the participants know best — their own communities and the areas they personally felt were at risk or needed to be represented on the map. By introducing OpenSteetMap to local students, they gained the skills needed to create data that was important to them, and for many, this meant putting their communities, neighborhoods and schools on the map for the first time.

I am energized by the rapid growth of the YouthMappers network, which reflects the increasing activism of young people who, enabled by technology and connectivity, are able to share their skills and time to support their own communities and communities across the world.

I’m excited to see YouthMappers’ continued efforts to provide a platform for students to not only volunteer remotely, in countries they have never seen — as I did in Kenya — but also for students to take the lead on mapping efforts within their own communities, as I witnessed in Belize.


About the Author

Julia Kleine is a geoscience major at Texas Tech University and the founding president of YouthMappers at Texas Tech University. She has worked as a virtual intern for the USAID GeoCenter and was a 2017 YouthMappers fellow in Kathmandu, Nepal. Follow her @julia_klei and USAID’s @youthmappers.