Today I want to share a very specific way to make positive impact with you: mapathons. I want to dedicate a full blogpost to mapathons because I feel like they’re a fun and accessible way of volunteering and creating positive impact, but not many people know about them. Up until this point I’ve joined 2 mapathons, one online and one offline. Not much, but I feel like I know enough to share the information about mapathons with you. Also, I’m hella excited about them. I’ll tell you everything I know.
What is a mapathon?
The word mapathon is a combination of mapping and marathon. During a mapathon you gather with a group of people and together you start mapping a specific area of the world. The gathering, both online and offline, starts with a general explanation on how to map and then everybody starts the actual mapping. During the plenary explaination you are also told what you are mapping and why. So far, I’ve only mapped houses. During those mapathons we mapped houses for specific vaccination campaings. We map using satelite images. So you get some satelite images and on those images you need to outline houses, roads, etc. From those mapped images the software makes actual maps. But there’s always a manual check on your mapping. So one person maps, and then another more experienced mapper checks the mapping that is done.
Why do we need to map?
When I first heard about this, I was flabbergasted. I thought there were good maps (both physical as online) of every part of the world. I’m used to maps of The Netherland, which are extremely detailled. But it turns out that this is not the case for the entire world. Most companies which make maps only focus on making a profit, which is why capitalism sucks. And so, for commercial parties like Google, mapping very remote or poor areas is not profitable. And so, they don’t make maps of those areas. But even though Google does not make maps of remote and poor areas of for example, Uganda, that does not mean that people living there do not need them.
That’s why we map. We make maps for people who do not have access to maps. And from what I know these maps are especially important to people working in those areas. People working in health care or doing social work for example. With maps they can actually see how many homes they need to reach to complete a vaccination campaign or give food aid for example.
The positive impact
Therefore, the mapping makes a huge difference. In some instances it can mean life or death. Mapping is done in special occassions, for a vaccination campaign for example, or for research. But you can also map during a crisis situation. When there is a flooding, cyclone, earthquake, drought, etc. You help people in need. But the work is never finished. Areas are always evolving and so every so many months or years the area needs to be mapped again on the basis of new satelite images. But each time the work gets easier as the base is already there.
Who organizes a mapathon?
These mapathons are organized by Artsen Zonder Grenzen (Doctors Without Borders in English). They organize these mapathons within the Missing Maps campaign. Doctors without Borders is a non-profit organization providing health care for people in need. For instance in areas where there is a natural disaster or war. They use mainly local doctors and other staff to set up the help. A very important detail if you ask me, because you don’t want foreign, rich, white people to help. White saviorism sucks. Instead, you want local people to help and built up their life at the same time. Anyway, you can be a donor for Doctors Without Borders, which I personally am. But the mapathons are a second way to help them, using your time.
Open source and non-profit
Now, you might wonder: don’t we help commercial parties by making these maps for them? Luckily, we don’t. The mapathons are organized by a non-profit, like I just said. However, we use software that is not theirs. We use the software of HOT Tasking manager. HOT stands for Humanitarian Openstreetmap Team. HOT tasking manager is a non-profit and it’s entirely open-source because they use OpenStreetMaps, as the name says. OpenSteetMaps is an open-source, non-profit alternative to Google Maps or any other commercial party. I am planning on writing a post about that soon. Anyway, open-source means that anyone can use and edit their data. This way, anyone around the planet can have access to geograhical information and so, anyone has access to maps! It’s amazing. Why should commercial parties be in charge of our maps and data? There’s no reason. Everybody on this planet should be in charge.
Mapathons with Doctors Without Borders
As I said, you can join these mapathons both online and offline. I’d say the offline ones are a little bit more fun and there is free vegan pizza and snacks! However, you do always need your own laptop and mouse, both at online and offline mapathons. That reduces accessibility a little bit. Doctors Without Borders has information on when the next mapathons are on their website. It’s easy to sign up for those and I would recommend signing up with some friends and/or family. The more the merrier! Doctors Without Borders organizes about 4 mapathons each year.
A mapathon by yourself
4 times a year is not that much if you’d ask me. Why? Because mapping is something you can do anytime, anywhere, as long as you have a laptop, mouse and internet. If you want, you can do it everyday. You don’t really need the events from Doctors Without Borders. Just sign in at HOT tasking manager, the same website that you use at a mapthon, pick a project of choice and start mapping. Right now, there are about 1900 projects open, so there’s always something to do. There’s one disadvantage though: sometimes you’re not experienced enough. For some tasks, they want experienced mappers and so if your account has not done enough projects yet, you have to choose another simpler project. What I personally also find helpful: there’s a filter that allows you to do the most urgent projects first.
You start and finish whenever you want. The work you’ve done is saved and if you don’t finish a project that’s completely fine, someone else after you will pick up right where you ended. It’s amazing! My recommendation would be that you first attend some mapathons before you start mapping on your own, because it’s nice to have some explanation in the beginning. But once you get it, you’re good to go!
In my ideal life I would map each week, a few hours at least. But right now, I don’t have the time to do individual mapping yet, so I only attend as many mapathons as I can. But you know, any help is welcome! I find mapathons and mapping a fun and reasonably accessible way to make positive impact.
Had you ever heard of mapathons?