This is the first in a 3-part series of posts discussing a partnership I initiated between Tulane University, the American Red Cross, and OpenStreetMaps, in which students in my undergraduate IDEV4100: ICT4D course participated in real-world mapping for OpenStreetMaps using satellite imagery, to support development and disaster preparedness initiatives being conducted by the American Red Cross in coordination with local host Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies.


The American Red Cross International Services Division, in partnership with Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies in developing countries, helps enhance disaster preparedness programming in part by coordinating the development of improved base maps, in partnership with Humanitarian OpenStreetMap, to provide more reliable information for first responders to utilize in the event of floods, fires, or other natural disasters.

This paper explores the process of Tulane University students becoming involved with Red Cross and OpenStreetMap, the tangible outcomes of this work, benefits and challenges involved with coordinating and executing these short-term mapping projects, the assigning and grading of this coursework, and feedback from participating students. Lessons learned and best practices for university courses, and implications for digital social innovation activities of this type are discussed. In order for these efforts to be successful, they needed to meet objectives on both ends. For the students and the course, the activity would need to meet learning objectives and provide an opportunity for students to engage with concepts they encountered in their classroom. For the Red Cross partners, it needed to at least have the potential to generate a volume and quality of work that would be beneficial to them as they entered the next phase of mapping.

Tulane University Course & Learning Objectives

The IDEV4100: Information & Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D) course at Tulane University is one of four required “core curriculum” course offerings for both the undergraduate major and minor in International Development. As a senior-level course, most students enrolling in the course have completed at least two other IDEV courses and are juniors or seniors in standing. Indeed, it is often the final of the four core curriculum courses taken by IDEV students, with many students electing to complete this course in their final year of study, just prior to graduation. I taught this course from the Fall of 2011 through the Spring of 2014. All descriptions, objectives, and course details are specific to that time period.

The objective of the course is to help students understand what ICT means and how ICTs as innovations/tools and change-making forces fit into the larger scheme of international development, how they relate to normative goals of poverty alleviation and positive social change, and how different ICTs reflect a range of institutions, policies, projects, funding decisions of people and agencies, including the students themselves. This course is intended to familiarize students with the range of tools and applications relevant in the field of development and to provide critical lenses and perspectives to think about how to apply and assess ICT technologies. A significant component of the course is hands-on experiential learning; as students encounter and utilize new ICTs, they are asked to evaluate their personal experiences and apply them to development contexts. As an instructor for this course, what I’m really looking for is an opportunity to give them some serious hands-on time with technology they wouldn’t normally engage with, to push their comfort levels and make them think about technology in a new way. During my three years teaching this course I focused heavily on creating opportunities for students to engage with unfamiliar technologies as a part of their day-to-day course assignments, from commonly-used social media platforms such as Twitter and WordPress, to more complex software systems like Canvas, a learning management system (LMS) which we used as an alternative to Blackboard. Additionally, I looked for opportunities to bring in examples of specialized software and hardware related to development programs, such as the XO laptop developed by One Laptop Per Child. We spend the entire semester of this course talking about technology and how it plays a role in the lives of people all over the world, and I want to broaden their own personal technological boundaries in the process. When I heard about the American Red Cross partnership with OpenStreetMaps, I saw an opportunity to push this boundary one step further.

American Red Cross & OpenStreetMaps

I became aware of the partnership between the American Red Cross and OpenStreetMaps (OSM) in late summer 2012, after my first year of teaching the ICT4D course, when word of a special event for World Humanitarian Day reached my ears. American Red Cross International Services in Washington, DC was hosting a “mapping party” at the International Response Center that day, inviting volunteers to participate in a concentrated effort to crowdsource the creation of a freely available map of the towns of Gulu and Lira in Northern Uganda, using satellite imagery provided by the U.S. State Department’s Humanitarian Information Unit. This particular event was part of a larger program, a partnership between the American Red Cross and the Ugandan Red Cross, under the umbrella of “Prepare Uganda: Reducing Risks in Urban Communities“.

The towns of Gulu and Lira in Northern Uganda have experienced rapid population growth, tripling in size over the past 20 years, resulting in congested neighborhoods, and causing existing maps to become woefully out of date. The populations of these towns risk damage from three major hazards: fires, floods and traffic accidents. “[Prepare Uganda] will strengthen the resilience of 10 vulnerable communities in Gulu and Lira to reduce the risks associated with floods, fires and inadequate emergency response systems. The project will work with the Uganda Red Cross to form Community Fire Response teams, engage local Red Cross youth in community clean-up days, and train motorcycle taxis as first responders when accidents occur, benefiting an estimated 85,000 people.” (source)  The program also includes support to bolster the capacity of response teams to respond to hazards by providing better maps. ‘Responders need to know how streets are laid out so they can figure out how to get closest to a fire,’ said Robert Banick, a geographic information systems (GIS) analyst for the American Red Cross. (source) A partnership with OpenStreetMaps gave the Red Cross in Uganda and the US the tools to develop better base maps, which could then be further developed into detailed, workable, usable local maps for first responders to rely on to save lives.

OpenStreetMaps (OSM) is a global open source mapping platform, with an open license, freely available for anyone who wants to use it, making the maps free and open to edit, copy, distribute. Usage of the OpenStreetMap GeoData “is controlled by a license. The most important thing about the license is that you do not have to pay anybody anything to use the data. There are NO copyright, license, usage or other fees. You may use the data for personal, community, educational, commercial, government or any other use that you can think of.” Using OSM as a base map for the Red Cross project is an innovative approach that allows for more flexible options when it comes to generating, modifying, adapting, and distributing the maps needed in the high-risk areas where the program focuses. “The goal is a higher quality and more accessible product for those who need it most, a welcome concept in the world of humanitarian assistance. Weaving new information technologies into humanitarian response in the developing world is an innovative trend. Using commercial satellite images shared by the U.S. State Department to identify and map much of each town, the group was able to concentrate on mapping downtown and urban centers where risks from emergencies tend to be more severe.” This creative strategy of utilizing a combination of shared satellite imagery, an open source mapping platform, open source software, volunteer crowdmappers, and following it up with local on-the-ground mappers is a great example of digital social innovation.

In an effort to jump-start the generation of their base maps, the American Red Cross hosted their ‘mapping party‘ in August 2012. The event was held in partnership with Humanitarian Open Street Maps (HOTOSM), who also hosted the data, and little to no previous experience was required on the part of the volunteers. More than 20 volunteers joined the mapping party in person on August 19th and traced streets, paths, parks, and other points of interest from the satellite images into Open Street Maps, a freely editable wiki map. These base maps would then move to the next stage of editing by local volunteer teams on the ground in Uganda using geographic surveys to fill in details like street names and building uses to take the maps to the next level.

The most impressive aspect of the “mapping party” event, to me, was that volunteers did not need to have any prior experience with mapping in order to help. All they needed to do prior to the mapping party was sign up for an OSM account, read through a Beginner’s Guide and walk through the Java OpenStreetMap Editor (JOSM) software tutorial, both available on the OSM Wiki pages. This inspired me to engage my classes in this kind of real-world activity…

READ MORE in Part 2 of this series: Process and Progress