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  • Thomas Larsen, Kansas State University

From Lines in the Dirt to Images on a Screen: Maps, YouthMappers, and a Changing World

Updated: Jan 4, 2021

We are excited to present our first guest blogger! We encourage students to submit their blog ideas here.

Thomas Larsen

PhD Student of Geography, Kansas State University

President of the GTU Beta Psi, an affiliated chapter of Youth Mappers


Four Years. After four years (1763-1767), Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon ended their survey of the famous Mason-Dixon Line. The border now separates Maryland, Pennsylvania, and the areas that became Delaware and West Virginia (Danson 2001).

17,024 Rotations. In 1525, the French physician Jean Fernel attempted to measure a degree of latitude. Using the rotation of his carriage wheels as an odometer, Fernel traveled from Paris north to Amiens, tediously counting 17,024 total revolutions (Wilford 2001).

15 minutes. It took less than 15 minutes to teach a group of university students how to use OpenStreetMap to map areas of Nepal affected by the 2015 earthquakes.

Mapping has certainly come a long way. We’ve traded carriage rides and costly expeditions for satellites, desktop computers, and GPS devices. Numerous organizations have benefitted from that progress, such as Youth Mappers, which is dedicated to educating children internationally about open-source geospatial mapping technologies.

From lines in the dirt to images on a computer screen, maps have remained a reliable tool for people to navigate and make sense of the places around them. Early indigenous groups in Micronesia constructed stick charts that helped them navigate amongst the Pacific islands (Davenport 1960). Eskimos in North America carved coastal outlines from ivory. Early Europeans drew maps on the walls of caves (Wilford 2001). Equipped with little more than a Wi-Fi connection and a laptop, members of Youth Mappers continue the tradition of mapmaking in the technological context of the current era.

Maps comprise of routes, landmarks, and locations, among other elements. They serve to help humans think geographically among and within places. In the human brain, the limbic system (especially the hippocampus) is responsible for the processes involved in navigating and reasoning about physical and social spaces (Lengen and Kistemann 2012; Tavares et al. 2015). Maps supplement these neurological functions by visualizing the area in question.

The recent surge of open-source mapping comes at a point when we need it most. The more we learn about the world, the more complex and problematic it seems to become. Global changes are occurring on many different scales and are influencing numerous systems (environmental and social, alike) that affect people’s livelihoods (Harrington and Harrington 2011). For example, global climate change has caused scientists to project a worsening of weather in countries like the United States (Egan and Mullin 2016). In an editorial published in Science, Johan Rockström, Professor of Global Sustainability at Stockholm University, concluded, “Earth system resilience and stabilization are necessarily rising to the top of political and scientific research agendas” (Rockström 2016). Disasters, natural and man-made, occur at an alarming frequency and will continue to manifest themselves in a variety of geographic contexts. It is imperative to this generation and following generations to employ cutting-edge tools like open-source mapping to mitigate hazards related to global changes.

Thomas Larsen and Dr. Kabita Ghimire, two of the three organizers for “Map for Nepal” (Photo courtesy of Dr. William Wetherholt; not shown—Courtney Clark of the Peace Corps and third organizer).


The 2015 earthquakes in Nepal provide an important example of applying open-

source mapping the natural disasters that happen in the world. Upon learning about the damage incurred by these seismic events, Gamma Theta Upsilon-Beta Psi Chapter (GTU) and the Nepalese Student Association at Kansas State University collaborated electronically with members of the Peace Corps in Washington, D.C. in a mapathon called “Map for Nepal.” During the occasion, the participants were tasked with using open-source geospatial technologies to digitize roads and buildings in unmapped parts of the country. Acting as co-organizer for K-State, I gave my group a 15-minute crash course on OpenStreetMap. Quickly afterward, these individuals, many of whom had little or no experience with mapping, were diligently tracing the lines for transport paths and polygons for buildings in rural sections of Nepal.

The most moving part of “Map for Nepal” happened when a Nepalese student motioned me over to her workstation. This participant informed me that she had located her home village and was mapping her birthplace! She began talking enthusiastically about the area around her house as the memories began flooding into her consciousness. The experience made me understand the profound impact that organizations like Youth Mappers could have on the global population. Real lives, stories, cultures, and homes are at stake.

K-State group during “Map for Nepal” (Photo courtesy of Dr. William Wetherholt)


From my perspective, mapathons like “Map for Nepal” do not simply characterize a group of individuals clicking and dragging a mouse across a screen to make maps. Instead, these programs help to humanize a community of people living in different parts of the world, while providing global “bystanders” like us with an opportunity to assist in relief efforts.

Youth Mappers has positioned itself to take humanitarian mapping efforts one step further: By expanding open-source mapping education to youth internationally. Organizations like Youth Mappers seek to equip the youth of today with the tools necessary to negotiate the obstacles of a rapidly changing world.



Danson, E. 2001. Drawing the Line: How Mason and Dixon Surveyed the Most Famous Border in America. Wiley: New York.

Davenport, W. 1960. Marshall Islands Navigational Charts. Imago Mundi 15: 19-26.

Egan, P.J. and M. Mullin. 2016. Recent Improvement and Projected Worsening of Weather in the United States. Nature 532: 357-360.

Harrington, J.H. and L.M.B. Harrington. 2011. Global Change and Geographic Thought. In 21st Century Geography: A Reference Handbook, ed. J.P. Stoltman, 50-66. Sage.

Lengen, C. and T. Kistemann. 2012. Sense of Place and Place Identity: Review of Neuroscientific Evidence. Health and Place 18: 1162-1171.

Rockström, J. 2016. Future Earth. Science 351(6271): 319.

Tavares, R.M., A. Mendelsohn, Y. Grossman, C.H. Williams, M. Shapiro, Y. Trope, and D. Schiller. 2015. A Map for Social Navigation in the Human Brain. Neuron 87: 231- 243.

Wilford, J.N. 2001. The Mapmakers: Revised Edition. Vintage Books: U.S.A.

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