This is the second post in a 3-part series 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.

A New Link in the Chain: Tulane Students Generate Maps

I got wind of a ‘mapping party‘the American Red Cross was hosting in August 2012, to jump-start their base maps for Prepare Uganda. 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 idea of participants needing little to no previous experience was surprising, yet appealing me to. If a one-time event like this with approximately two dozen volunteers could produce a workable product for this kind of project, what might a classroom of university students do in a couple of weeks with some training and support? An idea occurred to me that we might have an opportunity for a “win-win” situation: by partnering with the International Services Department staff at American Red Cross NHQ who were working on the mapping projects, our Tulane students might be able to generate an incredible quantity of base-level mapping work for their OSM project, while at the same time gaining some valuable hands-on learning experience with a real-world technology-based project. It was a new kind of model: a short-term group of crowdmappers with training specific to their project area, focusing on one geographic area, based on a particular need. I contacted the GIS analyst at the American Red Cross who was heading up the project, Robert Banick, and pitched the idea to him. It was an appealing addition from his perspective as well, a somewhat “captive” group of mappers to work on a specific project at a known time. There was an additional space in Braise, Uganda that he and his colleagues in the field were hoping to have a base map available for within the next few months, so students enrolled in the Fall 2012 course offering could fill a definite short-term need for their program.

Just as the Fall 2012 semester was beginning, I quickly modified the course syllabus, adjusted some assignments and timelines in order to accommodate this exciting project opportunity, endeavoring to best match Robert’s needs and schedule as well as the students’ needs and semester schedule. We settled on an “end of semester” project, for late November/early December, to fit Robert’s travel schedule, the needs of the Bwaise local mapping teams, and to give us time to develop our plans for working with the students, while also allowing me to replace the students’ final project for the course with a hands-on OSM learning activity. Continue reading