Texas Tech University

YouthMappers Organization Helps Map World Online

David Gay

November 6, 2017


Co-founded by a faculty member at Texas Tech University, YouthMappers from universities around the world use OpenStreetMap to help map remote areas.

OpenStreetMap is a map of the world, created by people like you and free to use under an open license.

In more remote areas, natural disasters are usually catastrophic. Depending on how remote the location is, people who live in the area could have a hard time locating evacuation routes because of the lack of data from maps and the internet. But, with the help of many hands, online maps are adding more information by the day.

YouthMappers, an organization co-founded by Patricia Solís, co-director for the Center of Geospatial Technology in the College of Arts & Sciences and research associate professor of geography in the Department of Geosciences, gives students around the world the opportunity to map different parts of the world using geospatial technology.

Solís, as well as her colleagues at George Washington University and West Virginia University, came together to develop this organization after years of conversations about open mapping with students using geospatial technology. Solís said she had been working for 12 years with United States Agency for International Development to develop an organization like YouthMappers.

“USAID was interested in this because they need data,” Solís said. “They need information when they are trying to respond to disasters or development needs. Sometimes, they are working in the dark and they may not even have data on the roads or the buildings. They may not know where they are going, or need information that might not exist.”

Mapping locations

About YouthMappers
As one of the co-founding chapters of the network, the TTU YouthMappers are enthusiastic to serve as interdisciplinary leaders to help create open geographic data and analyses that address locally defined development challenges worldwide.
The chapter strives to exchange and collaborate with other chapters around the globe while also offering themselves as a local resource and service to Texas Tech student organizations in ways that add value to their respecitive campus activities through mapping.

The YouthMappers use OpenStreetMap, a crowd-sourced platform that allows people to edit maps in different places around the world. Solís said in many places, there are not many maps to go by, so the students use satellite imagery to create the fundamental data for those locations. They use a tasking manager app produced by the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team to organize the many different volunteers.

Once the information is put into the map, multiple students take a look at the same location to make sure the mapping is as accurate as it can be in a process called validation, Solís said. 

Because OpenStreetMap is open for edits, Solís said local students in the region being mapped can go in and add specific information to the map including identifying types of buildings and street names.

People from around the world then can download the map and use it to gain different information. Solís said humanitarian organizations often use this information, as well as students and faculty who use it for their own research.

“Anyone who wants to look at it can look at it,” Solís said. “But people from humanitarian organizations like USAID, the American Red Cross and Doctors without Borders can go in and use it for what they need, including finding the evacuation routes, tallying the number of buildings and figuring out how many people are affected by a situation.”

Crisis situations are not the only thing for which  the YouthMappers' talents are being used. Solís said students at the University of Panama are using their YouthMappers chapter to map their campus in great detail. The map has helped make the students and administration realize accessibility and safety issues on campus.

Getting started at Texas Tech

As Solís was helping develop this organization, she said she thought it would be better for YouthMappers to be a social activity with chapters on different campuses. Having these chapters around the world help expand the amount of students participating in the activity.

In the Texas Tech chapter of YouthMappers, the members participate in Mapathons, parties where people get together and map different places around the world using the technology. Solís said during one of the recent Mapathons, the YouthMappers mapped parts of Puerto Rico for the Red Cross after the devastation of Hurricane Maria.

The number of chapters around the world has grown since the YouthMappers started in November 2015. Solís said about one chapter a week is created.

As the work YouthMappers are doing helps expand the reach of the organization's network, Solís said it is important for students to see people on the ground using the maps they created.

Julia Kleine, a senior geosciences major from Yorktown, got the chance to start the Texas Tech chapter of YouthMappers when the organization was launched. Through her work with the YouthMappers, Kleine said she expanded her network by getting the chance to go to Nepal as a YouthMappers fellow supported by USAID, interacting with different chapters around the world, including those in Bangladesh, Nigeria and Ghana.

The workshop was hosted in Nepal because of the Kathmandu Living Labs, Kleine said. This lab was instrumental in setting up mapping teams after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake in Nepal in 2015.

“This was one of the big examples of OpenStreetMap,” Kleine said. “People realized they could use this to map data during disasters.”

Mapping the future

For Kleine, being a part of the YouthMappers has given her more confidence in sharing the knowledge and technology with other people through different workshops, she said. She hopes to see the Texas Tech chapter of YouthMappers grow.

“I think the thing YouthMappers has going for it is, anyone who wants to do humanitarian work or apply their skills to real-life situations will be attracted to this organization,” Kleine said.

Solís thinks YouthMappers will continue to add chapters because of the excitement surrounding the work.

“It's been a crazy snowball of interest from students who want to be a part of this and want to learn about the technology and advance their own careers and experience in this domain,” Solís said. “They also are excited that any of the campaigns and tasks we set up for them, whether it be global, regional or local maps, is data someone has been asking for and something they need to do some kind of work. That is the underlying motivation and energy behind what they do.”

Solís said the work the YouthMappers do is helping not only the humanitarians using the maps but also the students themselves.

“I really think what the YouthMappers are doing is making a difference,” Solís said. “I think it is impacting the way the humanitarian community is working. It is also impacting the students learning about other places in the world and learning about this technology.”

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