Geography In Action – Kids Volunteer to Make Missing Maps

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This week, I took my two girls (ages 10 and 12 years) to a mapathon for the Missing Maps Project at Facebook HQ in London. During a little over two hours, my kids volunteered to make missing maps for a tiny part of the world that doesn’t have maps in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Was it difficult? Not at all. In fact, my 10-year old kept clicking away at her computer with a mouse and while sipping her soda, turned to me: “We can play on a computer and it’s useful!”

Clearly, she thought it was the best of two worlds and so did I. While I’ve always been a big advocate of kids knowing how to read maps, I’d never thought about kids making maps. Better even, you can make maps with a purpose. Volunteering for Missing Maps is geography in action like you’ve never seen it before and you can do it from home or at school! It’s  such a great project that I’m sharing my girls’ experience in their own words to inspire other kids and families to volunteer too.

Before you read on, two words of background. Our goal on Tuesday was to help Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres to respond to the frequent disease outbreaks that hit the city of Lubumbashi , Democratic Republic of Congo. For that, we outlined buildings using satellite imagery. We only volunteered for 2 hours with 80 other volunteers and the mapped neighborhoods of Lubumbashi went from 13% to 30% in one evening!

A 10-Year Old Perspective on a Mapping Evening

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After school, we arrived in the building [Facebook HQ] and we took a glass elevator to reach the 8th floor. I loved it! We entered a big room with lots of people on computers, probably making maps. Before, I didn’t know that maps were made like that. I thought that maps were just made by adults. They would find a spot, see a building, put a building on a map, use green or blue colors and draw it by hand. But that’s not at all what we did and I learned something new too.

Now, I know that maps can save lives. If there’s a problem, you can use the map to find people in trouble and help them.

Here’s how I did it. On the computer, I clicked on the Area icon, then I could use the mouse to draw lines around the buildings om the screen to make a complete building. I thought that it was extremely easy and it was fun too. During the time that we were there, I completed three or four squares. My mother only finished two! One of my squares had almost no buildings – it looked like a prairie or desert, maybe? Another had been almost completed and unlocked by someone else. It was easy! I unlocked and finished it in no time. I think that the map that we worked on was in Iran or something? [It was in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but never mind.]

It would be fun for some kids to volunteer on Missing Maps. I could mention it to my History Geography teacher, especially the one who recently made us study maps. [She hand drew a map of our neighborhood.] She showed us different sorts of maps, talked about GPS and lots of things but she didn’t talk about this.

I really liked that it was so easy to make maps to save lives and I was very surprised that we were the only kids. [The mapathon takes place from 6 to 9pm and is geared towards adults.] Even if it was after school, it was cool and I really enjoyed the Missing Maps evening. It’s a nice change from what we do usually as a family.

A 12-Year-Old Perspective on a Mapping Evening

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Missing Maps helps make maps to save lives in real life. Making maps is surprisingly easy to do, but it can be long. There were too many houses in one of my squares! [Mappers select squares on a grid.] I didn’t know how maps were made before and I like this way. It’s perhaps not the best of maps, but if there is no map at all, I’m sure it’s a good one. Outlining buildings and squaring corners really reminded me of a game on Hoodamath [a math games website] where I could buy properties and outline them with the mouse.

Volunteering for Missing Maps was a really good experience and it was even fun. I never got bored when I was mapping. In fact, I listened to music and outlined buildings at the same time. What I loved most of all was seeing my screen name appear on the big “live mapping” screen in the room. This meant that I had actually completed a square and everybody knew about it.

Facebook HQ, London

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This being one of the coolest office buildings I’ve ever seen, I can’t resist posting this photo of my girls signing the Facebook Wall before going on our glass elevator ride back home.

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Between the writable glass wall, the authentic red British telephone booth on the floor below, the cardboard “Queen Elizabeth shaking hands” and the sideways gravity-defying tea room in the lounge area, the location definitely added a cool factor to the experience.

Missing Maps – The Why and the Answer

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Before I conclude, you may wonder why some parts of the world are unmapped and why you should care? Fair enough. The Missing Maps Project is a partnership between Doctors without Borders, the America Red Cross, the British Red Cross and Humanitarian OpenStreetMap. When disasters (earthquake, hurricanes) or large epidemics (Ebola) strike, doctors and humanitarian personnel are the first on the ground. To find people who need their help, they need to know where they are and this starts with a map of the area they live in.

For instance, my girls couldn’t believe that some parts of the world still didn’t have maps. I couldn’t either, for that matter. Why is that? It’s possible that the military or commercial interests don’t want to share them. Whatever the reason, without maps showing where they are, people in need don’t exist. That’s why it’s essential to put these people on the map (literally) by volunteering a little of our time.

Have some time to volunteer as a family?

Missing Maps starts here.

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Laure Latham

Laure is an author, environmental advocate, blogger, open water swimmer and now mother. She's passionate about inspiring families to enjoy the outdoors with their children, learning to unplug and living a healthy lifestyle, giving kids life skills and exploring the world around us sharing Family Friendly, Fun Ideas for the whole family on Frog Mom.

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