I’ve grown up in a world of innovation, in a future world that would be ineffable to the children of my parent’s generations. My childhood existed somewhere between analog and digital. I remember getting caller ID for the first time. I saw the succession of music tech; each new gadget quickly met its obsolescence in the wake of internet streaming. It wasn’t until I graduated high school in 2011 that I started to notice smartphones permeating across age groups and income levels. People on Twitter anonymously feud while others become ever more reliant on virtual acceptance from their virtual peers.
As I find myself deeper into adulthood, the conversations about screen addiction, brain and social development of today’s children, and the strangeness of having AI in our daily appliances and urban environments has become reality, not just science fiction. The loss of privacy and the large-scale manipulation of people and elections by tech companies have and will continue to affect us. A tinge of fear hangs over our most exciting technological advancements. As I grapple with the health implications of working on a computer every day, it is difficult to see good in the way our culture has become so dependent on our screens and technology over the course of my lifetime.
This is where YouthMappers and OpenStreetMap come in, a silver lining in what can often be an overwhelming world of tech and information. The platform and communities wrapped up in this experience offer positive opportunity and a chance to participate in bigger things globally. Instead of overwhelming me, OpenStreetMap and YouthMappers have enlightened me with possibility. What better way to empower people than by putting them on the map? We can use our geospatial technologies to tackle the big problems in the world. People globally are interested in making a difference, and this is just one easy way to participate.
Being able to create data for use in a humanitarian project brings purpose to screen addiction (not that I’m addicted to my devices or anything…). Before my YouthMappers internship, boredom on my part would have likely ended in mindless scrolling on social media. Now, I can remotely explore the world, and indirectly learn about people’s lives through the creation of geographical data. I’ve also had the unique opportunity to learn cultural and geographical details that I would have otherwise never known.
For example, the first OSM project I worked on was in the Bui National Park in Ghana. The objective was to not only map building and roads, but to locate artisanal mines that had illegally been dug within the preserved area. After a few weeks of mapping, and getting better at imagery interpretation, my peers and I discussed our struggles with identifying the mines. A little backstory helped us better understand the situation. We were told anecdotally that this area of Ghana had previously been where people did the majority of their fishing for food and for income. Then, north of that particular area, a dam had been built, disturbing the natural water systems and completely disrupting a fisherman’s ability to earn a living. In response, those same people started mining to make money.
With a little research, I learned that the Bui Dam project on the Black Volta River in Ghana, a 400-megawatt hydroelectric project, has had inherent effects on fish populations and river flows while its construction simultaneously forced the resettlement of a few thousand people away from their fishing livelihood.1 In that short explanation, I was better able to understand the reasoning behind the mines, humanizing the people responsible and shedding light on a truly complicated scenario. To learn something so specific about an area of the world that I’ve never visited is strange and encouraging; I like learning about the world in this way.
Even though this didn’t necessarily help us identify the mines on imagery any easier, it changed the way I saw the issue. This is a cultural learning moment that I will never forget. Because of technology that many people take for granted, I get the opportunity to take a glance into other people’s lives around the world, and then hopefully help them in an indirect way. YouthMappers and OSM have created this opportunity for me to learn about the world in a way that growing up with the internet had not.
My experience with OpenStreetMap has only just begun. I know that beyond my participation in the YouthMappers internship, I will be an OSM volunteer for life. If I have the opportunity to do more within this community, I will jump on it. The implications of participating in this realm where people, places, and technologies collide can change the way we interact with each other and our environments.
Once you get the hang of digitizing, it can become an activity that is as easy and fun as scrolling on Instagram, but much more fulfilling. I know that the more projects I work on, the better understanding I will obtain of the world and its geography. I feel privileged to be able to see the world from this perspective. I think if more people of all ages saw the world in this way, it would make us feel more connected to one another and our environment, perhaps counteracting the divisiveness that our technology can sometimes catalyze.
Lila Rodriguez is a student at Arizona State University, member of the YouthMappers ASU chapter at Arizona State University and a YouthMappers Virtual Intern with the USAID GeoCenter.