University of Northern Colorado students give back, map areas to help with humanitarian efforts | MyWindsorNow.com

University of Northern Colorado students give back, map areas to help with humanitarian efforts

Kelly Ragan
kragan@greeleytribune.com

When Emily Doerner lived abroad in India, she didn't have a good map. Often, she didn't know where she was or where she needed to be. She felt lost.

It wasn't for lack of trying, though. It's common for second and third world countries all over the world to lack good maps.

That was especially frustrating for Doerner, who worked for a non-governmental organization in Kashmir, which is a conflict zone. Maps are how she relates to the world and understands her place in it, Doerner said. As a geography student, being without a map was almost like losing a limb.

It can be deadly for folks who live in unmapped areas.

When disaster strikes in poor, vulnerable and conflict-ridden areas, first responders need to know where the people are. If cities and smaller villages aren't mapped, the people in them are hard to find and therefore help.

"There is no Google Maps in China," Doerner said. "There are some cities that just don't exist according to the government. From a humanitarian perspective, that's a big deal."

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That's why Doerner, a sophomore at the University of Northern Colorado, joined UNC's Humanitarian Mapathon Oct. 20. The university's geography and GIS department gathered at WeldWerks Brewing Co. to map buildings and roads in Malawi. Mapping Malawi will help aid workers to find and educate the local population about the spread of HIV and AIDS. If they can't find people, they can't educate them about disease prevention.

About 40 students registered, said Jessica Salo, a geography and GIS instructor at UNC. The group used satellite imagery taken by the U.S. State Department from DigitalGlobe, a Westminster-based organization. OpenStreetMap, Missing Maps and the Red Cross cooperated to organize the event. The maps will help first responders in the event of an emergency.

OpenStreetMap kicked off in 2010 in the aftermath of the 2010 Haitian earthquake. Now, when a disaster does take place in unmapped areas, the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap team calls on its network of volunteers to create online maps responders can use to reach people in need.

It's an open source system, like Wikipedia, in which anyone can contribute. Volunteers log in and analyze satellite images of unmapped areas. Volunteers then draw what they see, labeling buildings and various types of roads.

According to its website, over 3,500 Missing Maps volunteers have made a total of 12 million edits to OpenStreetMap and helped put 7.5 million people on the map.

Mike Thompson, an OpenStreetMap volunteer, said after the earthquake in Nepal, they had 800 volunteers in 24 hours working to map the area.

"If there's a disaster like the Windsor tornado in 2008 or the 2013 floods, they already have maps to route people in," said Mike Thompson, OpenStreetMap volunteer. "A lot of people around the world don't have that."

Russell Deffner, a member of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, said they now work to map out areas ahead of disasters.

If you're in a new place and you don't have a map, Deffner said, you have to ask around for directions. It's impossible to navigate effectively without local knowledge.

"That happens to first responders all the time," Deffner said. "We fill that gap if there isn't a map available."

The goal is to map the whole world, Deffner said.

Maps aren't just capitals and rivers, Doerner said; they describe people's interactions with their surroundings. Maps give people an opportunity to know where they are in relation to everything else, whether it's access to food or medical care, she said.

"It's important to understand our place in the world," Doerner said. "Not having maps limits my understanding of the place — I think it limits (locals') as well."

— Kelly Ragan covers features and health for The Greeley Tribune. Have a tip? Call (970) 392-4424 or email kragan@greeleytribune.com.

To help

If you’re interested in volunteering with OpenStreetMap, go to https://hotosm.org/get-involved