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‘It’s very accessible to everyone’: UoA geography students are mapping for a purpose

Students were motivated by devastating earthquakes in Turkey and Syria

By Josh Pizzuto-Pomaco

Photo: Douglas Morrison

In the wake of the devastating earthquakes in Turkey and Syria last month, which killed tens of thousands and left millions without homes, UoA geography students are doing their part to help relief workers via their mapping skills.

In late February, a number of students gathered in St Mary’s to learn about OpenStreetMap, an open source mapping platform which allows users to chart roads, buildings, and other infrastructure using satellite imagery before uploading them to an easily accessible online database.

As Dr David Green, the Director of the Msc programme in Geographical Information Systems at UoA, explained, humanitarian open street mapping is very important to those on the ground.

He said: ‘The availability of up-to-date, 'near real-time' maps are crucial in post-disaster relief and recovery, especially where the infrastructure e.g. buildings and roads [have] been seriously damaged by earthquakes, flooding, [and] tsunami. In many countries, existing maps that may be available are usually of little use, may be out-of-date and unavailable for numerous reasons…’

Green continued: ‘... Using recent remotely sensed imagery from satellites and drones for mapping purposes can be an important way to establish the current situation, and being digital and online can become rapidly accessible to relief agencies and on-the-ground rescue teams through the Internet…’

Likewise, Douglas Morrison, a 4th Year Geography student, told The Gaudie that the process helps to reduce inequality by opening up areas that were previously unmapped. He commented, ‘It's a good way of empowering people there, because in a lot of cases if you’re not on the map, you’re a nobody. Governments aren’t very interested, because it’s too much effort for them to bother going through these [areas] because they don’t know how many buildings there are, but by doing that, you’re empowering those people.’

After seeing coverage of the earthquakes in February, Morrison felt compelled to act. He worked alongside Green and Geoscience Society Co-President Jennifer Pirie to run an event intended to teach the system to their coursemates.

Pirie stated, ‘... I was taken back by how something so easy could be carried out from home and make such a difference. As the president of the geoscience society, I figured I had a platform to share this information to more people. This received a very high level of interest from our members to which Douglas and I then decided to hold a mapathon.’

Morrison was encouraged by the event, which allowed people to drop in and learn the system before continuing to map at home.

‘It’s very accessible to everyone,’ Morrison told The Gaudie. ‘You certainly don’t need to be on a geography or geomatics degree pathway. If you know where North is and you can click a mouse, you can get it to work for you. There’s various levels… easy, medium, and hard, so you can choose very simple ones or challenge yourself a bit.’

If you are interested in learning more about OpenStreetMap, you can visit its website at


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