Students of the Master of Geography of Environmental Risks and Human Security Programme (GeoRisk) gathered online last Friday to hold a mapathon for pandemic resilience in Brazil. They mapped over 250 buildings in one hour, helping local organizations in Salvador, Brazil, pinpoint areas in favelas that might serve as testing and hygiene item distribution locations in the fight against COVID-19.
South America has become the virus’s epicenter, making the task of the mappers urgent. Containing the virus in Brazil’s favelas is a major concern due to poor living conditions and the fact that many of their inhabitants are essential workers.
For those responding on the ground, like local governments and NGOs, the need for up-to-date maps and information is crucial. Oftentimes they don’t have access to these resources, and this is where the mapathons come in.
The mapping event involves the creation or improvement of a map by a group of remote mappers, who trace satellite imagery into OpenStreetMap. Local volunteers then verify the map’s content. The final product is a map that local authorities and NGOs can use in their responses.
Friday’s mapathon was the latest event organized by the Uni Bonn Missing Maps Project, an initiative started by GeoRisk student Antonia Matthies in October of 2019. The project is a part of Missing Maps, a larger project that aims to provide NGOs and local actors with better data and knowledge for crisis response in vulnerable places with new and improved maps.
The mappers choose their tasks from a list provided by Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, an organization dedicated specifically to mapping. They then receive instructions, satellite images, and a map showing the area of focus. In Friday’s case it was COVID-19 resilience strengthening in Marechal Rondon, Salvador, Bahia.
With a bird’s eye view at hand, each participant selects a specific area to work on. Mappers then begin to identify structures and trace squares around them in the process. The goal is to map as many structures as possible, and when the mapathon is complete, results are sent to a local organization for official verification.
For GeoRisk students, participating provides an excellent opportunity to apply their knowledge of risk, vulnerability and exposure, which are key topics they address in their master’s curriculum.
“Studying the theory makes mapathons much more interesting and easier to understand. Why does the government need these maps? What are the intentions behind it? Why didn’t these maps exist before? And what makes these regions actually vulnerable, in the first place?” says Matthies.
Matthies typically chooses tasks that deal with natural hazards like floods, landslides and typhoons. However, since the outbreak of the pandemic, the group has begun to complete tasks related to COVID-19.
“I think doing something hands on and practical is really good. You can see the results of your work at the end, and it’s all going to protect people against the pandemic.”
In May, the group mapped 915 buildings in the Kgatleng District of Botswana, helping to provide the local government with a base map for COVID-19 monitoring.
The pandemic has pushed the mapathons online, but aside from a few small glitches, that hasn’t slowed them down. The group has held 3 events and mapped over 1,700 buildings in 3 different countries since stay-at-home orders took effect.
Participation is open to anyone and Matthies highly encourages anyone who is interested in geography, GIS, or aspires to be a future humanitarian to join.
“It’s just a win-win situation, because you feel like you’ve done something great and it actually helps in a really meaningful way,” says Matthies.