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  • Adele Birkenes, Vassar College

Reflections on the 2018 YouthMappers Research Fellowship Symposium

Hi! My name is Adele Birkenes, and I am a rising junior and a Geography major at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY. This summer, I am serving as the geospatial analysis intern at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) GeoCenter. During my first week and a half on the job, I had the privilege of attending the YouthMappers Research Fellowship Symposium as an observational participant. As 2018 Research Fellow Ingrid Martha Kintu describes in her blog post, the symposium took place at The George Washington University (GWU) and West Virginia University (WVU) from June 3-15, 2018. It featured interactive training sessions on using mapping software and conducting community-engaged research that equipped research fellows and their mentors with the skills and tools they need to carry out their research projects.

Coming into the symposium, I thought that I had a good grasp of the mapping software currently out there. Last summer, as a data analysis intern at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, I learned how to use ArcGIS Online web maps to convey information about the spatial distributions of marine mammal stocks. Then, this spring, through coursework in GIS and spatial analysis, I gained experience in ArcMap, using the software to explore topics like environmental justice, land use change, and site suitability for renewable energy production systems.

The symposium opened my eyes to a whole new world of collaborative, creative mapping that I previously did not know existed. The morning of my first day, I attended a workshop on building ESRI Story Maps facilitated by the founder of Story Maps, Allen Carroll, and other members of the Story Maps team. I was excited to learn about a mapping platform that strives to be highly engaging and accessible to the public. As I reflected on my mapping experience, I realized that the only people who have consumed the maps that I have produced with ArcMap and ArcGIS Online have been fellow geographers and scientists. I look forward to using Story Maps to present maps to a wider audience; this summer, I will be employing the skills that I gained during the ESRI-led training session to create a Story Map about the GeoCenter’s history and projects for the GeoCenter’s website.

On my second day at the symposium, Nuala Cowan, Assistant Professor of Geography at GWU, led training on Java OpenStreetMap Editor (JOSM) and showed us how to use the software to assist in Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) projects. As Professor Cowan walked us through drawing circles around buildings in the Lake Chad region, I began to understand how open street mapping (OSM) is connecting geographers around the world and utilizing their skills to support humanitarian aid missions. Since the symposium, as part of my internship, I have worked on HOTOSM to map buildings and roads in risk zones surrounding the Mayon Volcano in the Philippines. The task is part of USAID and USGS's efforts in disaster risk reduction (DRR) mapping of volcanic hazards pre-disaster. For the first time in my study of GIS, on-the-ground outcomes of computer-based mapping feel truly tangible.

Attending the YouthMappers Symposium was a formative experience for me, and I am excited to return to Vassar in the fall and collaborate with my peers and professors in the Department of Earth Science & Geography to start our own chapter of YouthMappers. I know that I can look to the community of research fellows, their mentors, and the YouthMappers team that I got to know during my time at the symposium for support along the way. I am certain that I will carry the lessons that I learned at the YouthMappers Symposium with me as I continue in my studies in geography, and I am deeply grateful to the YouthMappers team for inviting me to participate in the symposium.

Adele Birkenes is a rising junior at Vassar College majoring in Geography and minoring in Biology and Hispanic Studies. She is passionate about marine biogeography and sustainable development. Originally from Silver Spring, MD, she is the daughter of a USAID Foreign Service Officer and grew up in Kazakhstan, Egypt, Jamaica, and Thailand. This summer, Adele is interning at the USAID GeoCenter with funding from the Vassar College Environmental Research Institute.

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