Students’ Mapping Efforts Support Global Disaster Response

Students’ Mapping Efforts Support Global Disaster Response

Flooding along the White Nile River in South Sudan has displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

Last week, a group of students participated in a Mapathon — a humanitarian mapping initiative that uses technology to plot the geography of remote, unmapped regions of the world in order to assist international relief organizations in disaster response and risk reduction.

Empathy is not enough; you need to take that empathy and put it into action.

— Julie Mughal, Assoc. Director of Humanitarian Action, Center for Social Impact

From a room in the lower level of the DiMenna-Nyselius Library, 15 students contributed to humanitarian efforts a world away through participation in Fairfield University’s first-ever mapathon, co-sponsored by the library and the Center for Social Impact.

During the Oct. 28 event, the Humanitarian Action Club members traveled virtually through an open-source mapping software called OpenStreetMap to the flood-ravaged village of Bor, South Sudan, and used satellite images to identify and chart previously unmapped landscape markers such as roads, buildings, and rivers.

Nicole Marino, digital scholarship librarian, spearheaded the initiative at Fairfield. She explained how the map information compiled by the students will go through a validation process before being sent to relief organizations like the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, and other NGOs [non-governmental organizations], to guide disaster preparedness and humanitarian efforts like vaccination clinics and supply drop-offs to displacement camps.

“One million people have been displaced by floods along the White Nile in South Sudan since last July,” noted Humanitarian Action fellow Julia Neal ’23, a nursing major and humanitarian action minor, “and 400,000 people have lost their homes in the region where Bor is located.”

Getting a bird’s-eye view of the vastness of the land, and seeing signs of human activity on the satellite images — tire tracks on dirt roads, clusters of buildings — allowed the student mappers to grasp the scope of the flooding disaster and encouraged them “to really think about all these families and people whose lives were uprooted,” said Neal. “I was imagining who had walked there, where they were going, what it was like for them.”

“Opening up the images and seeing what other people's homes and towns look like, and even the many different classifications of roads,” noted Marino, “also encouraged the mappers to think about the cultural context of the geography.”

Julie Mughal, associate director of Humanitarian Action at the Center for Social Impact,  teaches the “Honors 221–Global Engagement” course and helped organize the mapathon event. “In my classes,” she said, “I always tell students empathy is not enough; you need to take that empathy and put it into action.”

Written feedback from her students about the event has been overwhelmingly positive. “I had never heard of mapping or the program OpenStreetMap before going to this event,” wrote one student, “but I am so glad to have learned about it… it is such a simple and easy way to make a big difference for people around the globe in more secluded and underdeveloped communities.”

“When I think about mapping for my daily life,” wrote another student, “it is usually in the context of how to get somewhere in an efficient way. For other parts of the world, however, mapping can be the difference between life and death.”

Mughal hopes to make the mapathon a recurring event on campus. Although the time commitment for students was just an hour or so, Mughal pointed out that the impact of their efforts — when taken collaboratively with the work of volunteer mappers all over the world — was immense. “It really made the students feel a part of the global community, to do something of value to help people who are not even, literally, ‘on the map’.”

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