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Mapathon: from Altrincham to Africa

Maps are used everywhere and are often taken for granted. They’re certainly not taken for granted however whenever an area is hit by a crisis…

How did that pizza arrive at your door last night? How do you know where things are? How do you know where you are? The answer: maps. Maps are used everywhere. Going to a new restaurant? You probably used a map. Ever been lost? You probably used a map. The postal service? They’re definitely using maps (Informed Solutions even helps to provide them). Maps are taken for granted.

They’re certainly not taken for granted however whenever an area is hit by a crisis. We’re all aware of the incredible work that happens whenever an area comes under crisis, selfless people from all across the world are flown in at a moment’s notice to lend aid. One of the most invaluable assets in these situations is maps, but they don’t always exist – in fact, they rarely do. A member of Informed Solutions, Rich Phillips, who volunteers with the international charity MapAction to provide this aid, had this to say about the value of maps: “In emergency situations the conditions in a region are often unclear, and a map brings everybody together to ensure that aid can be coordinated, and also delivered to the right place. It’s the best medium for communicating regardless of people’s background, language or expertise.”

Here’s a specific example of where mapping is essential: Médecins sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders) are launching a new maternal and child health support program in the district of Moissala in Chad, but to do this they need a map containing the locations of all the buildings in the district. So a bunch of us at Informed Solutions decided to help, and organised a ‘mapathon’ (a coordinated mapping event) at our offices in Altrincham, Cheshire. While the event was self-organised by people with an interest in GIS, it was open to all.

On Friday 12th April, fifteen of us took two hours out of our day and mapped over 1500 buildings in Chad. These were mapped through OpenStreetMap, a collaborative crowdsourced free map of the world. This didn’t require any special skills, tools or knowledge – all it took was a laptop each, an internet connection and a fair few pizzas. To map the buildings we simply looked at (slightly blurry) satellite imagery of Moisalla and marked on the outlines of buildings, “digital tracing” as someone remarked.

Over half the people in the room had no prior experience with GIS, yet everybody came away feeling accomplished and proud to have contributed to a good cause. It really is amazing that just anybody can help out international aid efforts by donating some of their time to map out areas of the planet. I think the event really helped to negate the idea that GIS is inaccessible and requires specialist knowledge, as it was great to see people from a variety of backgrounds coming together and using tech for good.

Thanks, also, to Informed Solutions Group CEO, Elizabeth Vega, for allowing us to take time out of our day to both organise and hold the Mapathon which was appreciated by all involved, it turned into a very fun and rewarding experience.

If you want to help out these aid efforts too, head over to the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team website and follow the instructions to start mapping.

If you’re interested in coming to work with the colleagues who took part in the mapathon, go to:

Graduate programme details:

Experienced-hire career growth opportunities:

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