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  • Jack Brunson, University of Oregon

Crowdsourcing Environmental Justice - How Mappers are Making a Difference

As YouthMappers we all have a few things in common: we love to make maps and possess the continuous desire to promote human welfare worldwide. As a freshman entering the University of Oregon I had an idea of what my main interests were but had a difficult time narrowing down what I wanted to study. What I did know was that I loved working with others to find solutions to humanitarian and environmental issues. The only thing I needed to do was find an area of study compatible with these interests. My first experience with GIS and crowd-sourced mapping opened my eyes to a world of new opportunities that I could experience both in the field or at home on my laptop.

I’m a tree lover. There’s no doubt about that. Many hours volunteering with environmental activist groups in addition to being a cross country runner made me realize the vital contributions trees and greenery make to promote a healthy community. While brainstorming projects to tackle this summer one issue close to home stood out in particular. The historic Hayward Field at the University of Oregon was undergoing a massive renovation which requried the removal of dozens of elm trees along the border of campus. Although devastating, students and locals were reassured that healthier trees and higher quality soil would be replaced as soon as the project reached completion. I’m fortunate to live in an area where many people are vocal about preserving the environment and the city is willing to listen. However, that is not always the case. Tree cover loss and deforestation are rampant and leave many environmentalists wondering how they could possibly help. Seeing the destruction of such a beautiful and essential part of the environment in my own town made me think: How can digital mapping be used to improve similar sitiuations, and what challenges would we face working on projects of a larger scale?

The popularization of publically available satellite imagery over the past few decades has allowed people to more easily visualize perceptible tree cover loss over time. With historical imagery dating back to 1984, it is now simpler than ever to compare the current with the past.

Governments and NGO’s in countries experiencing rapid deforestation have discovered that GIS and satellite imagery can assist greatly with the monitoring of deforestation and tree cover loss. In regard to deforestation, South America is experiencing some of the most significant losses of rainforest coverage in the world.

Environmentalists have been using GPS tracking devices on illegal logging trucks to track where trucks have been receiving and delivering lumber. Environmentalists discovered that these trucks frequently visited reforested or protected areas to receive lumber that was illegally cut down. With the assistance of government and often the help of social media, activists have the ability to gain media attention and expose these companies for their unethical and illegal practices.

Tree loss in urban areas presents both similar and a completely new set of problems when compared to loss in forested areas. In addition to flood prevention the presence of trees in urban areas can contribute to reductions in temperature, noise pollution, and air pollution. On a smaller scale than immense forested areas, similar methods of assistance and restoration can be applied to communities who want to reduce tree cover loss in urban areas. Volunteers in urban centers across the globe have been utilizing platforms such as OpenStreetMap to map out spaces where there are currently trees, where trees are being lost, and where no trees currently exist. With the assistance of local government or volunteer groups this data can be used to find suitable locations for new planting sites. Here in Eugene, Oregon, a volunteer group called Friends of Trees focuses on improving tree cover in the city and specializes in selecting species native to the area. The introduction of native trees to the area boosts local ecosystems and can improve the health of local residents.

Deforestation, tree cover loss, and many other environmental problems are all inherently spatial issues. When it comes to environmental justice and activism mapping plays a crucial role in deciding where and how these problems are dealt with. Whether it be at home or in the field, the spatial skills acquired as a mapper can be used to improve both the natural and human environment.

30 Years of Deforestation in Tezén, Paraguay (Image Courtesy of Google


30 Years of Tree Cover Loss in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Image

Courtesy of Google Maps)

Jack Brunson is a rising senior at the University of Oregon majoring in Spatial Data Science and Geography. This year he became the vice president of his university’s YouthMappers chapter, Map by Northwest. Jack enjoys environmental activism and worked as a summer intern for the USAID GeoCenter. He looks forward to learning more about how mapping can improve communities around the globe.

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