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Maps Where They're Needed Most

Flooded coastline
Photograph by Win McNamee/Getty Images


Maps Where They're Needed Most

STUDENT LIFE | In the wake of disasters around the world, Noah Ahles ’14 and Nina Loutchko ’20 gather up a circle of students for a work party. When Hurricane Harvey roared through coastal Texas, they quickly got down to business, some twenty UVM students at computers in an Aiken Building lab.

It’s called a mapping party—a party with a critically serious aim to help first-responders, disaster planners, and anyone else in the region who needs an accurate map of what the storm has done on the ground. Yes, there are chips and salsa and Oreos, but there’s also Ahles at the front of the room saying, “We’re going to be working tonight in Houston to help them get back up on their feet.”

The students are volunteering their evening for the UVM Humantarian Mapping Club. It seems a bit like a video-game competition as they focus intensely at computers, drawing magenta squares on satellite maps. Each box goes around a building and then is classified—“tonight we’re mostly just looking at houses,” Ahles says—joining their work to a global effort called OpenStreetMap that include teams of engineers, GIS professionals, humanitarians, and other groups of college students around the world.

 The UVM club is part of an organization called YouthMappers with seventy-four chapters in twenty-four countries. “We’re exchanging emails with universities in Kenya, South Africa, and India,” says Loutchko, who joined the effort last year and now serves as president. “We’re collectively trying to get young people involved in mapping and humanitarian work.”

Noah Ahles, now on staff at UVM’s Spatial Analysis Lab, describes OpenStreetMap as the Wikipedia of maps. “Anybody can edit, anybody can download, and anybody can use it for free,” he says. “It’s powerful because it takes the red tape away from organizations that need to do damage assessment, or disaster recovery, or any situation where they need open-source data immediately."

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