From Pyrophile to Cartophile

[DISCLAIMER: This post has little about fire but the IMFSE life is not just about the F]

The IMFSE experience is known to provide opportunities to travel and gain international exposure. Of all the things that travelling brings, my favorite activity when travelling is…. reading maps. It’s quite strange and my travelling buddies often tease that my head is often buried in maps or that I can somehow remember street names and directions once that map is in my head. Getting lost and being found is the magic of travel. Without a (google) map in hand, I doubt many of us would be able to get to wherever we need to be. Thus, I was instinctively drawn to the Missing Maps Project; a humanitarian project who aims to map the most crisis-prone parts of the developing world, to help NGOs and the rescue teams access different region.

What Missing Maps are all about. We are the remote “armchair mappers” in Step 1.

My first encounter with the project was through a student organization in the University of Edinburgh, Engineering 4 Change (E4C), aiming to provide engineering solutions to development issues. (University of Edinburgh has more than 280 awesome student organisations – not including their sports teams – catering to everyone’s interest and skills!! Highly recommended to join them (I joined 3!!) and explore life outside the classroom.). E4C organizes many activities to link the technical engineering world to society at large and one such event is the Missing Maps Marathon. I was clueless about what it was about but since there was “maps”, I’m in. And I’m still into it.

The Mapathon started with like-minded engineers gathered in Appleton Tower, laptops (and the all-important mouse) at hand, ready to map-it-out. The task for this Mapathon was to map out the Manyoni district in Tanzania to help the NGO there working to prevent female genital mutilation with their outreach work to girls at risk in remote villages by providing better road and residential area data. (To learn more about how maps can help, view this video) It’s hard to imagine that there are areas which are not (google) mapped. We take for granted that every street in every city has been mapped but the fact is that it has only been mapped by private organization where it is profitable to do so. I realized how previous and essential maps can be (especially when you are trying to figure out where is the road and the building from crude satellite images). Although technically this can be done at home in your PJs (or in PJ = Palsjoang), it was really fun to map alongside other mappers scrutinizing and consulting each other (is that a building or a tree?) and of course, there was pizza!!!

Having moved to Lund for the new semester, I thought the Mapathon days will be over but thanks to an independent non-profit organisation, ABC Lund, my mapping days (or rather nights) continue! This time I brought Kate along for her debut mapping experience for ABC Sweden’s Humanitarian Mapping Workshop. The task was to map the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh to help UNHCR plot the camps in order support the humanitarian response to the crisis. We had to plot all the shelters separately (in fact, 1924 buildings (!) and shelters were mapped that night) but ABC Lund gave a small reward to the best contributor of the evening! Guess who went home with the top prize….

Two weeks later, I was back for yet another workshop with ABC Lund but this time the task came full circle as it was the same as the one I did with E4C. It made me wonder just how much mapping has yet to be done not only in Tanzania but all over the world. I even wonder whether such measures could help in the issue of fires in informal settlements (a topic we learnt about in out Fire Safety Engineering and Society course) be it in recording the distribution of smoke alarms or the study of fire spread between settlements as I doubt these informal settlements which at high risk of fire are documented in accessible maps as well. In any case, whether you are cynical about the impact of these maps or not, I believe taking time off and doing something different which you are interested in could be rather therapeutic. So for fellow cartophiles…. take up mapping and make a difference.


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