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  • Andrii Berdnyk and Sudie Brown

GWU Geography Students Use Open Source Tools to Put Vulnerable Communities in Guatemala on the Map

For our Geography M.S. capstone project we had an opportunity to partner with the Pan American Development Foundation (PADF) to work on a project that aims to strengthen the capacity of vulnerable communities in Guatemala to mitigate, adapt to, and recover from natural hazards. Our task was to help PADF achieve this goal by bringing open source mapping tools to disaster-prone communities in Mixco, Guatemala and creating linkages between stakeholders to foster ongoing data collection and sharing. We are hoping that the data created during our project will help local disaster response committees and community members to better understand disaster risks, improve early warning plans and mitigate the effects of natural hazards. Since PADF is part of the Missing Maps Initiative, our work was part of a bigger goal of mapping vulnerable places in the world to create life-saving information to guide humanitarian response.

GW Geography graduate students Andrii Berdnyk and Sudie Brown during their fieldwork in Ciudad Satélite, Mixco, Guatemala

The Municipality of Mixco, not far from Guatemala City, is a community situated along steep hills making the population vulnerable to landslides, erosion and floods. Additional risks include poverty, high population density and limited resources for training and equipment for emergency response. PADF is currently implementing a disaster risk reduction project in Mixco funded by Taiwan and is expected to facilitate the identification of communities most vulnerable to natural hazards. Unfortunately, like many places, Mixco was not well mapped, so if disaster did strike, it would be difficult for emergency response teams to have necessary data to provide assistance. We got involved to pilot this innovative community mapping initiative using open source platforms to put Mixco on the map and empower community members to also use these tools.

The project began with remote tracing of buildings and roads in two communities in Mixco where PADF have been working on facilitating community mapping exercises. We hosted two mapathons working on the same HOT OSM task. The first was held in December and was co-hosted by GWU’s Humanitarian Mapping Society, a member of YouthMappers, and PADF. The second one was a remote mapathon with students at the Rafael Landivar University in Guatemala City preceded by a quick tutorial on how to use OSM. This was our first taste of teaching OSM in another language in addition to having to troubleshoot any problems via Skype. Despite the language and the distance barriers, the students picked it up and we almost completed our task of over 200 squares and thousands of buildings. When the task was completed, a community that was virtually invisible on Google maps was fully mapped on Open Street Map (OSM).

Once our task was traced, we developed a survey with the help of PADF staff in Washington, D.C. and in Guatemala City. This survey consisted of two parts - the building section and the household section. The building section captured data on type of materials used, exterior condition, and the type of slope a house was built on. The household section collected socio-economic data from inhabitants of each building such as employment type, income, health issues, accessibility etc . It also included questions about emergency plans and hazards that the household had previously experienced.

Community members, GW and PADF staff gather in Ciudad Satélite to begin the building and household survey and validate data with Field Papers

Before we knew it, we were headed to Guatemala to validate our tracings with Field Papers and gather hazard vulnerability data using Open Data Kit. We were joined by two GW Geography faculty members - Dr. Nuala Cowan and Dr. Marie Price who is also the President of American Geographical Society. Our day in the field was only our second day there and after a three hour training with local community members, volunteers, and PADF staff, we embarked on surveying the study area and validating OSM data. We split into teams of three with at least one community member in each team. In just two hours we did over 100 exterior building surveys and 49 household surveys.

Surveyors using Field Papers to validate data in OSM

We learned a lot about vulnerabilities in our study area. Thanks to the preliminary work that PADF had done with the community we were well-received and assisted in every possible way. Communities members really grasped the tools and loved that we were interested in finding out more about their community and putting it on the map. The local knowledge was very valuable for mapping and it also provided us with more insights about hazards the locals are trying to prevent. “In a couple of years this house will disappear,” said one of the community members as we were walking by the house standing on the edge of a deep ravine. She showed us to the back of the house and warned us not to come too close to the edge as we could be standing on the edge of a cliff with an air pocket underneath the soil. Talking to community helped us understand the threats faced by residents and the resources that they had to combat one.

Community Members, GW team, PADF staff and volunteers participating in the survey

We also discovered that using ODK is efficient and easy - having to gather that much information by hand would have taken hours and then someone would have had to later enter all of the data into a spreadsheet! We didn’t even need internet in the field. We uploaded our data the next day in the PADF offices. Had we had more time and a bigger team, we could have very easy conducted the survey for a much larger area. The maps and information was then shared with the community for planning purposes.

During the week after our survey, we offered trainings on OSM, ODK, Field Papers and Mapillary at a local University called Rafael Landivar. Several volunteers from the previous day attended the trainings and were able to gain a deeper understanding of our field work over the weekend. The goal of these trainings was to empower stakeholders in Guatemala to start using these tools to create positive change in their own country. There is no doubt that the knowledge of these open source tools has spread further through this trip and will hopefully contribute to more places being mapped, particularly in Latin America. One of the volunteers is even working towards getting a YouthMappers chapter at his university!

The GW and PADF research team after conducting a workshop on OSM at the University of Rafael Landivar. From left to right: graduate students Andrii Berdnyk and Sudie Brown, professor Marie Price, technical advisor for PADF Claudia Chajon, PADF senior program manager Aaron Van Alstine

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