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  • Sonia Torres and Stella W. Nakacwa

Mapping a bridge across the Atlantic Ocean - How Two University Students Hope to Implement a Sister

The process of globalization has affected all aspects of public life. With the spread of the internet and global trade, access to data has become imperative for the preservation of the health, educational opportunities, and finances of individual citizens. All sorts of diagnostics, surveys, and models are used to conduct public policy nowadays, and that process also requires large access and storage of data. But what happens when that process is privatized by large corporations and monopolized by academics? To their detriment, individual citizens, especially those of low-socioeconomic status, find themselves misrepresented in key development projects. It is important to reverse this trend and train new generations to challenge their lack of representation in the collection and validation of the data which affects every aspect of their lives.

Two students, Sonia Torres and Stella W. Nakacwa, are seeking to change this by increasing the engagement of college aged-youth in the process of virtual and real time open-source mapping and validation. This semester, they underwent the planning process to host an inaugural YouthMappers Sister Chapter Data Validation Challenge, across two different international universities. The objective was to bring students interested in open source mapping, and introduce them to virtual and street-level data validation. Although the event had to be cancelled due to last minute logistical constraints at both campuses, we believe that the planning and effort our two universities undertook this semester will be useful in replicating the YouthMapper Sister University Model at our own and other campuses next year!


Planning for this event required the assistance of many people. The main organization which helped us was YouthMappers. YouthMappers is a global initiative and movement that is aimed at engaging the youth especially those at the university in the creation and management of open geospatial data. The data created is open, free for usage by anyone. In Uganda, the YouthMappers has almost a chapter in every one of its Universities. This includes; Makerere University Kampala, Busitema University, Uganda Christian University Mbale, Gulu University and all the others. The youths are introduced and trained on the creation of open data using the various tools. Trainings are carried out on the interpretation, extraction and creation of useful information from satellite imagery. High resolution satellite imagery is used in mapping features like roads, buildings and waterbodies. With the help of OpenStreetMap (OSM) tools like field papers, OpenMapKit and local knowledge, it is possible to attribute the datasets created.

The quality of data created is ensured through “data validation,” a process that basically involves cross-checking what has been mapped (data created) by another person. The university students come together to work on Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI) projects that aim at helping developing countries, especially, in responding to natural disasters or fight against problems like poverty, disease and hunger. There is a secondary process that includes real-time validation, with street-level imagery, which can also be used to increase the quality of the open-source map. While the collection of street-level imagery can be more time and hardware intensive, there are some organizations that are improving the ease of this process. One of those organizations, which was instrumental in the planning of our event was Mapillary. Mapillary is a service that offers the live form of street view of any city, virtually.It offers, the three dimensional (3D) realistic visualisation of the given streets through a collection of videos and still videos (images) collected through an application engineered by the mapillary team. Mapillary data can further be processed to provide a lot more information, qualitatively as well as quantitatively. More information like maps, traffic signal extraction which could be important for monitoring the cities’ growth as well as guide for better policies could be extracted out of the mapillary data. Hence, this makes it a great service with which validation of existing OSM data by the virtual volunteers could be performed so as to improve on the quality and authenticity of the OSM data available.

Ultimately, both YouthMappers and Mapillary are examples of great organizations seeking to embolden youth to participate in the open-source mapping community. This Sister Youth Mapper Chapter model has high potential to increase youth engagement, and improve the data access that local NGOs and larger development projects run by organizations, such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). More data savvy millennials across the globe is sure to help will improve the chances of addressing the enormous challenges of our time: HIV/AIDS contraction, climate change, natural disaster first response, hunger, and female empowerment.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about the history of mapping at each of your universities?

Stella: Makerere University, also known as the Tower of Ivory in Africa, has consistently hailed for the future through preparation of the young enthusiastic and energetic professionals and leaders. With a focus on resilience for the African child, through the Department of Geomatics, Makerere University joined YouthMappers in January 2016 under a chapter name; Geo YouthMappers. This came through after a successful project with the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap and Financial Service Deepening for mapping financial inclusion in the City of Kampala and the Eastern Region of Uganda.

Since then, the students under guidance of both the department and YouthMappers inaugurals have not backed down on building maps and mappers for the community in Uganda as well as the virtual community. A lot of engagements have been perused inclusive of Mapathons for the different Ugandan Universities, projects with basic mapping for sustainable development, learning new mapping technologies like Mapillary as well as syncing into collaborations with other chapters virtually and through physical presentations so as to keep the Chapter (Geo YouthMappers) active.

Sonia: Unlike Makerere University, Rice University did not have either a YouthMappers Chapter or an active volunteer mapping community before late 2017. With the assistance and support of my Virtual Student Federal Service Internship, the State Department’s Data Revolution for Sustainable Development Team, and the Rice GIS Data Center, I undertook the challenge of changing that and bringing the first Mapathon ever to Rice University in the Fall of 2017. Inspired by the success of this first event, and remembering that I had first learned of open-source mapping during a summer internship in Uganda, I decided to reach out to friends I met at Makerere University. Once I discovered the YouthMappers network, I established connection with Stella… and the rest is history! I hope Rice University will be able to form a YouthMappers chapter on campus next year, and proceed to complete sister-university challenges in collaboration with other international students who are excited about volunteering their time to the worthy cause of data mapping and validation volunteerism.

Q: What were some of your motivations when planning this event?

Stella: The motivation of this sister collaboration came behind the drive of virtual collaboration and exploration as hailed by the YouthMappers movement. For the community of Makerere University students that have not had the opportunity for physically sharing their ideas, experiences with chapter members outside Uganda, this collaboration was an open platform for engagement with the students of Rice University to share not only the mapping practice but also diversify the knowledge in the different cultures as was established different by the two chapters. This included the different faculties, since the activity required a map necessary for planning the Mapillary activity, the time zone and that geo YouthMappers were excited to find out about the sister chapter. The need as the chapter fellows to boost the significance of the existence of the chapter amidst all the department agenda, by introducing the collaboration with an international University chapter. As well Mapillary is the other kind of mapping that was not given focus amongst the geo YouthMappers, well, this collaboration brought all this in handy and as said, two birds were shot with one stone.

Sonia: The main motivation for trying to bring this Sister Mapping Challenge to campus simple: in a world where malaria, HIV, natural disasters, and other crises stump human potential, it is imperative for students to become globally conscious, and volunteering time as a Humanitarian Openstreetmap Mapper and Validator is a great way to gain this awareness. Additionally, since Rice University did not have an established mapping community prior to the planning of this event, we believed that partnering with an established chapter would be a fun way to accelerate the community building necessary to sustain long-term mapping events at Rice. The Makerere chapter has been doing great work for many years, and the opportunity for mentorship, bonding, and cultural exchange was simply too much too pass up! I also had much to gain from this exchange, since I have not been mapping for longer than a year - in fact, most of my interest comes from having had previous non-profit and civil society experience, where I became intimately aware of the many challenges a world without data access equity has (and will continue to have) unless we begin addressing the problem.

Q: After planning, what did the final vision of this event look like?

Overall, the goal of the event was to introduce mappers with novice experience to the idea of data validation. The final agenda for the event included a half-day portion where street-level imagery and Mapillary would be discussed, and a second half where data validation on OpenStreetMap would be discussed. Because of time difference, it was near impossible to arrange an event of this length that occured at the same time. However, we still wanted the event to be as “collaborative” as possible, so we planned them on the same day, different times.

The planning for the first half of the day was highly facilitated by the Mapillary team remotely in Sweden. The event would begin (at both universities), with a tutorial to download the Mapillary app. Ideally, for students without a smartphone, cameras would be provided, whose imagery could also be uploaded to the Mapillary repository. Then, the participants would go through a short tutorial and be given their “validating” tasks around the university. While it would have been optimal to invite students from both universities to join together and attend a mission off campus with similar goals (for instance, mapping health clinics and hospitals), we found that it would be a disincentive for busy students to require them to go off campus. Afterwards, the data from both of our campuses would be uploaded to the OSM map. First half of the day done!

The second half of the day would show participants how to validate data online, as well as introduce them to the participants who were completing their mission at the partner university. To kick off the second half, both chapters would attempt to have a skype call to very quickly introduce the participants to teach other. Then, the leaders of the event would explain a little about the mapping culture at each school, while also explaining the types of projects that are geographically relevant to each chapter. Next, would come the fun part! With the help of Patricia Solis, from the Texas Tech Youth Mappers chapter, we were able to set up parallel tasks on Humanitarian OpenStreetMap at each of our universities. This meant that Rice University students would be able to use the imagery collected in the morning by Makarere students to complete a task there. Conversely, Makerere students would complete a mapping task of the Rice campus, giving both sets of participants a quick look at what different university infrastructure looked like. Ultimately, this event would give students a neat chance to create global connections with other mapping enthusiast, while seeing the value of becoming involved in both street-level and virtual imagery.

Q: What best practices did you come up with during the planning of this event that you recommend to other students planning a similar event?

Stella: It is not easy to organize an event not scheduled within the department timeline at my university, that I must say; this was a breakthrough. Initially, after the introduction to the collaboration by Sonia, accordingly, meetings with the department head transpired for inquiries about the loop, and hence copulate within the best of the schedule. Three events had been prepared so as to accomplish the overall aim of the collaboration: a first introduction to Mapillary, and then the two halves described previously. However, only the first was covered due to the undoubted circumstances that leaped along into the course of the semester. This was the first event which was conducted to introduce more information and training about Mapillary here in the Makarere chapter, which would have been followed thereafter the actual activity of collecting the images would follow and finally, exchange of the images and validation of the OSM data based on the Mapillary data. A few best practices I followed to resolve this challenge was to keep constant email, skype, and messenger communication, in order to make Sonia aware of the typical planning process, as well as promoting the event enthusiastically in front of my department so that I could squeeze this event into our chapter’s busy calendar.

Sonia: In terms of best practices, I think my main two would be seeking institutional support and evaluating the potential for building a mapping culture at your own university carefully. Unlike Stella, my chapter did not have a schedule full of events - because it didn’t exist! So the hardest part for me was recruiting and advertising an event nearly no one in campus had previous experience with! This is where seeking institutional support and being aware of the potential of your own campus comes in handy. While Rice did not have a YouthMappers chapter, it did have a robust culture of intellectual curiosity and solving problems, as well as an established (but in my opinion, under-used) GIS support center at Fondren Library. Because the center does not have that many undergrad users, they were really excited to help, even in renting and getting food for the event! Next, I researched existing mapping communities in neighboring Texas universities, since they were likely to understand the constraints I would have recruiting volunteers (and eventually building a mapping community) in my given context. This is how I reached out to the fantastic youth mappers inaugural Texas Tech Chapter, and their Director Patricia Solis. She was very instrumental in trying to set up the virtual data validation challenges, and in helping us navigate some other logistical snags. Lastly, the data validation team from Mapillary were incredibly gracious, and helped us set up a challenge similar to previous ones they had hosted. Overall, I was really impressed with the passion which the mapping community welcomed newcomers, especially college-aged ones. So I guess last tip is… take advantage of that excitement!

Q: What were some of the challenges and lessons learned from the cancellation of the event?

Stella: The challenges that resulted in the cancellation of the event were both expected and unexpected. Some of the blocks included strikes at my school, the shifts within the time tables for the different classes, and the unexpected tests that would not let the participants to give their all for the completion of the event. In terms of lessons learned, effective and continued communication is key for better management of any organization not only ones related to mapping. Through, the continued advertisement, personal encounters to the team and all the stakeholders, induced more space and information and advice for how to go by some of the challenges.

Sonia: Rice had very similar scheduling challenges as did Makarere University. Since the planning of the event took the majority of the semester, the finalized date ended up being really close to finals for both universities. After a necessary extension of a week to finalize planning, it was difficult to recruit students at Rice, who were very busy with finals. My advice to other students would be to look at their academic calendars with planning so that preventable logistical challenges are addressed. For lessons learned, my favorite part of planning this event was discovering that their are subtle mapping preferences across different nations; a joint exercise (or at least the planning of one for me) was an excellent way to see those in action. First, the types of missions that students partake in are different, which frames the conversation around mapping differently. For instance, in Houston, we had just experienced Hurricane Harvey, and so the interest around natural disaster missions was high. In comparison, HIV/AIDS data collection missions, as well as financial inclusion mission are common in Uganda. Second, since the infrastructure differs greatly between Houston and Kampala, familiarizing mappers with different forms of geographical dividers (for instance, a “parish” in Uganda might be called a “county” in the United States) was important. Lastly, again because of the infrastructure differences, different mapping “styles” have arisen, and it’s important for global mappers to be aware of that whenever they help out in missions. For instance, in Africa, buildings are usually mapped individually, whereas in the United States they may be tagged as one building. Similarly, in Africa, the shape of the building is a key point of concern, meaning that all corners of a building, if any, must be outlined. It is not the same for the US.

Concluding Thoughts

Sonia and Stella, in collaboration with YouthMappers and Mapillary, are excited that the groundwork for a YouthMapper Sister Chapter model, as well as the planning for a potential Mapillary data validation event, has been done. They look forward to attempting to overcoming the logistical challenges and implement this event next year. Overall, they hope that other YouthMappers chapters, and even youth without a chapter at their schools, will be inspired by this post, and explore the benefits of participating in a fun, virtual, and cultural exchange via a Sister Chapter Mapathon event.

Sonia Torres is a rising senior at Rice University, Houston,Texas, majoring in Mathematical Economic Analysis. This year, she was an intern for the Virtual Student Federal Service Internship with the State Department’s Data Revolution for Sustainable Development Team. Her other involvements at Rice University include work with the Center for Civic Leadership, Civic Duty Rice, the podcast “In The Loop,” Rice Speech and Debate Team, and Rice Mariachi Luna Llena. Ultimately, she has a passion for developing the intersection between public policy, economic development, and data, so that both local and international communities can be empowered.

Stella Wavamunno is a final year undergraduate student at Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda with competence in Global Positioning Systems, Photogrammetry, Remote Sensing and GIS. She is looking forward to bettering the world utilizing Global Positioning Systems and GIS, and working towards building a more sustainable environment. Throughout her entire college life, she has focused on how to give back to the community and through engaging with YouthMappers, she was well-trained as a volunteer; the management of her YouthMappers chapter, as well as her experience collaborating with chapters with Map Uganda.

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