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What’s a mapathon?

These were the exact words uttered out of my mouth a few months ago when I started my internship. I had never heard of such a thing. Danceathon, telethon, marathon–duh. But mapathon? When I first started interning, I attended an event about Digital Humanitarians which sparked my interest. For those of you that aren’t familiar with the term, a digital humanitarian is a volunteer within a network of volunteers that digitally work with humanitarian organizations.

The talk was hosted by Patrick Meier, a man who became involved in this sort of work when his wife was caught in the 2010 Haitian earthquake. He said he was hearing on the news about the destruction, but wasn’t hearing anything from his wife. The phone lines were down and he had no way of contacting her. Through digital mapping, crowdsourcing, and incoming social media updates, he was able to make sense of and determine which areas were in most need of crisis aid.


Photo Credit: KSAKSA from morgueFile free photo

I left this presentation thinking, wow, this is the sort of stuff that really helps people! The best part is, anyone with internet access can do it! I started doing a little more research and digital mapping was a much bigger deal than I had ever thought.

A few weeks ago, I attended my first ever Mapathon and it was awesome! Walking in, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The event was held at George Washington University in the Geoinformation Science Department and being from CSU, it was a little intimidating not knowing anyone. I set up my laptop as students started filing in and I realized that this was going to be very laid back. Students were here to actually catch up with friends, but to help those in need as well. I found myself chatting away with several other students and soon realized I was going to have a great time!

As a first time “mapper” (yes, that is what you are referred to as), I had no prior experience or knowledge. But let me tell you, this was easy. Not joking, I could probably teach my grandparents how to do this and that’s saying a lot. The site we were using, Missing Maps, was so user-friendly and simple to pick up. After a brief introduction from some more experienced mappers, I was soon mapping away.

To give a little detail into what it is you actually do, it’s basically satellite imagery tracing. Most mapathons are focused around one certain area. For example, the entire group of mappers will be working on a city in Bangladesh for that block of time. Using Bing satellite images and computer-generated mapping tools, you trace around images to create local detail like houses, roads, and buildings. These maps are then transformed into neighborhoods with street names, offering more accessibility to evacuation and aid centers.

Pizza was brought in, someone set up a Pandora station, and soon everyone was on their computer, enjoying themselves as they mapped. I couldn’t help but think that this would be such a neat thing to bring to CSU. Before I end my internship here, I hope to be able to see about offering an event like this on our campus. I know several friends that would be interested in hanging out together, all while making the world a better place! It doesn’t get much better than that.

Hallie Gardner can be reached at and on her twitter page @gardner_hallie.

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