Texas Tech University

Students Mapping a Better World

Glenys Young

July 14, 2016


Texas Tech’s YouthMappers chapter participated in a joint mapathon with the White House and six other chapters to help with malaria prevention in Mozambique.

YouthMappers in Washington, D.C.
Photo Credit: Michael Crino, USAID GeoCenter

A group of Texas Tech University students are helping deliver life-saving malaria prevention tools to people in Mozambique. They're providing data that will help aid agencies serve Syrian refugees on the Turkish border with needed supplies. They're marking roads and bridges for planners to outline evacuation routes for people in Ecuador under the threat of a volcanic eruption.

They're doing it all, and more, from their computers right here in Lubbock.

The YouthMappers network boasts 27 university chapters – and counting – in 11 countries. It brings together scholars and volunteers who work collaboratively using the OpenStreetMap platform to build maps and create geospatial data where it is needed most to help people throughout the world. Texas Tech's chapter – one of the network's three founding chapters – and six others recently participated in a mapathon with the White House. The primary project was Mapping for Malaria Prevention in Mozambique, a joint effort between the Peace Corps, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and the President's Malaria Initiative. YouthMappers is supported by a grant from USAID's GeoCenter.


Chapter vice president Hasan Almekdash was one of the organizers for Texas Tech's local mapathon.

“You don't need to have any experience using OpenStreetMap, so we presented to the volunteer participants about humanitarian mapping, the cause, what we are doing, how to use OpenStreetMap to create data and how that is helpful,” said Almekdash, a doctoral student in higher education administration from Damascus, Syria, who is also pursuing a graduate certificate in geographic information systems (GIS) and technology. “For example, in Mozambique, the malaria campaign – you need to map infrastructure in order to guide the USAID initiative for reaching the people in these areas. Peace Corps teams need to get to houses, so they need to know the roads, where they can drive, where they can't. So it's important to map all of that.”

Fellow organizer and chapter treasurer Tarek Kandakji, a doctoral candidate in geosciences, who is from Homs, Syria, called it an amazing opportunity.

Nayara Vasconcelos
Texas Tech student

“The whole world is going toward online services and GIS, and mapping should be part of that,” Kandakji said. “This whole OpenStreetMap is part of what's called crowdsourced mapping. People provide the sources for the mapping. You open Google Earth, you open Google Maps, you already have the sources there. You already have streets – professionals did that; corporations did that. OpenStreetMap has a different strategy: it's a wiki approach. People do their inputs. You don't have to be an expert; you don't have to be a GIS specialist. All you need to do is go there, see the satellite images and draw the lines, draw the houses. You provide a base map for services all around the world.”

Because OpenStreetMap's platform relies on volunteers, other experienced volunteers check the work before maps are used to distribute humanitarian aid.

“You have the satellite images first,” Almekdash said. “You see houses, you see what looks to be streets and rivers, and then you have tools to select all of these. For example, if you see a house, you use the polygon tool to create a polygon around the house to say it's a house. That's how you mark all the features on the map. Then you have people who are checking the accuracy and validity of these procedures. They have techniques to match things up and make sure they're accurate. The volunteers are not necessarily experts in geography or cartography, so there are people comparing data sources and satellite images to check quality.”

Patricia Solis
Patricia Solís

It's an important task, Almekdash said, because countries most likely to need humanitarian aid are those least likely to have the infrastructure in place to get that aid to their people.

“In developing countries, resources are not like resources here,” he said. “Developing countries in Africa, in Latin America, in the Middle East, those might not have the resources for mapping, so we're trying to help those people mostly.”

Last week's mapathon included a secondary project called Missing America, sponsored by the U.S. Census Bureau. Several neighborhoods near Sierra Blanca, Texas, and remote areas of northern Maine were on the to-map list. Unlike the resource-poor developing countries, Kandakji and Almekdash attribute these mapping needs to the areas' isolation.

The mapathon was arranged by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Office of Digital Strategy. Open, accessible data – including geospatial data – has been a key component of the administration's open data initiatives. Increasingly, tools like crowdsourced mapping are opening up the ability for the public to contribute to government datasets and for government to support the creation of open data. Agencies including the Department of State, the Department of Interior, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the General Services Administration are working on crowdsourced mapping projects.

YouthMappers program director Patricia Solís, a research associate professor of geography in the Texas Tech Department of Geosciences, traveled to Washington, D.C., to participate at the White House along with chapter student government representative Nayara Vasconcelos, a recent Texas Tech graduate. Like her fellow officers back in Lubbock, Vasconcelos helped to teach mapathon attendees how to use OpenStreetMap.

Crowdsourced mapping projects and participants are part of a growing innovation movement, transforming the relationship between the government and the public, and supported by United States commitments in the Second and Third Open Government National Action Plans.

“It really makes me feel proud, like this is something good,” Kandakji said. “The White House's contribution to this gives it more legitimacy and popularity for the people. The people know the White House is involved, that means it's something important, something vital, and we need to work on it. So you feel proud, you feel happy this kind of humanitarian approach is adopted by the White House.”

Almekdash said his primary emotion was a feeling of accomplishment.

“When you do something to help others, you think, ‘what I am doing is impacting people right away in real life,' so that's the fun of the mapathon,” he said. “You're actually helping other people. You're using your knowledge and your energy to support people, and to see the results is really rewarding.

“We have the resources to do all of that. Maybe not all people are lucky enough to have the same resources we have here – the same labs, the same knowledge – so we try to make the human condition better through humanitarian mapping.”

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