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EP38 Humanitarian Mapping with Youthmappers NYU
Rodrigo Delatorre: Welcome back to the I AM GPH podcast. In this episode we're going to be focusing on the topic of humanitarian mapping and how members of the NYU Global Public Health community are contributing in this day and age. My name is Rodrigo. I'm an undergraduate student studying neuroscience and minoring in global public health, and I am joined today by my colleague, Rachel.
Rachel Levy: Hi everyone. Thanks for tuning in. My name is Rachel and I'm also an undergraduate student studying global public health and applied psychology, and I became passionate about humanitarian mapping so much so that I started a student organization here at NYU called Youthmappers. That's works through USAID in connection with a lot of other chapters around the country.
Rodrigo Delatorre: Yeah. So Rachel is currently the president of Youthmappers and for those of you who don't know what it is, it's an undergraduate as well as graduate club that teaches members how to map using a platform called OpenStreetMap and we get together and organize Mapathons. Well for those of you who don't know Mapathons are essentially get togethers where we all contribute to humanitarian projects and hopefully streamline or speed up the process.
Rachel Levy: We host typically two or three Mapathons a semester and they're usually a few hours long. We get a lot of food, we all just sit in front of our computers and map a certain village. And so when outbreaks or disasters occur in these areas, locating towns and settlements to provide humanitarian aid becomes a matter of life and death. That's what humanitarian mapping seems to facilitate and improve. It also provides these areas with maps that their citizens can use on a daily basis moving forward. So at our Mapathons, we aim to facilitate immediate help from NGOs that seek to provide aid to these types of communities and also allow the communities themselves to benefit in the long run.
Rodrigo Delatorre: Exactly. Rachel, as you mentioned, maps are extremely important. They can not only save lives but they're also there for the communities to use later so that they can get around in the same way that we do that we typically take for granted. Now, today we're joined by two members of the NYU Global Public Health community to talk about this a little bit more. We have Gina and Sasha, and they're going to be discussing their experiences with humanitarian mapping as well as other forms of mapping.
Rachel Levy: Thanks so much for joining us today, Gina and Sasha, welcome to I AM GPH. If you could both talk a little bit about yourselves and what brought you to NYU and into the mapping community.
Gina Gonzalez: Hi, so my name is Gina. I'm a second year MPH student at the College of Global Public Health studying epidemiology. I started mapping last fall when I joined Youthmappers. Prior to that, I had no experience with mapping, so since then I've been involved in a few Mapathons. My first Mapathon we all started, I think there was six girls just in Rachel's apartment mapping. This year, we were able to map alongside the UN General Assembly at the United Nations Population Fund and we were mapping to help end female genital mutilation, which was really exciting and it was just really great to see the club come so far from Rachel's apartment to this... Mapping at this UN organization. So it's been a really great experience.
Rachel Levy: Thank you so much Gina. Sasha, could you talk a little bit about your efforts in mapping as well?
Sasha Guttentag: Sure. I'm Sasha, thanks for having me here today. I'm a third year PhD candidate at CGPH and I'm studying epidemiology and my primary focus is on mobile health and health technology and that's how I became very interested in mapping as a way... Sort of just exploring all different kinds of technology and how we can apply them to population and individual health. So with our advisor, Tom Kirschner, a couple of years ago, and Rachel, I've been with Youthmappers since its inception. As part of the Youthmappers' organization, I was a member of this leadership fellowship conference that was held in Nepal a couple of years ago with Youthmappers' organization leaders from across the world. So being involved in that really reinforced my enthusiasm for the work that our club here at NYU is doing and open source mapping worldwide.
Rodrigo Delatorre: Wow. Great. Thank you very much, Gina and Sasha. I think we're ready to dive into some of our questions that we had planned out. So humanitarian mapping falls under the umbrella of Geographic Information Systems or GIS. So how would either of you describe GIS to somebody who's not familiar with it?
Gina Gonzalez: So I would describe GIS as a way that allows people to visualize data by providing them with spatial representations of either patterns or relationships or even trends over time through the use of these maps. And an early example that I can think of of GIS would be the cholera outbreak in London, which John Snow was able to identify this Broad Street pump as being the culprit of this cholera outbreak by mapping out these cases of cholera and then also mapping out the pumps and he was able to find this association through the use of this... Like a dot map. So that's a really good example as it relates to public health.
Rachel Levy: Sasha, do you have any hands on experiences with mapping as well?
Sasha Guttentag: Yeah, so aside from sort of these Mapathons that Youthmappers run, I think everyone listening here has experience with GIS. So when we pull out our phones and look for the nearest coffee shop or look for directions to someplace we're meeting a friend for dinner, that's all GIS. And you know there's so many applications of GIS. I of course have an affinity towards humanitarian or health mapping, but there's all sorts of applications of GIS. Scientists use it a lot to study climate change and see how you use satellite imagery to see how certain areas are more affected than others and more susceptible to certain impacts from climate change. There's a whole community that does geocaching and orienteering, which I think Rodrigo and Rachel are getting involved in, which is really exciting. And GIS, the community, the open source community that we work with it's really broad. There's individuals working to contribute to these OpenStreetMaps from all kinds of different disciplines. And so I think the community building aspect of it is really one of the most amazing parts of the GIS community.
Rodrigo Delatorre: So Sasha, you mentioned a lot that GIS helps with community building and it helps a lot of, I guess epidemiological crises. I'm just wondering from either of you if there's any other kinds of application for GIS that's not purely based on something scientific.
Gina Gonzalez: So one application that I can think of in my day to day life is the Waze app, which is an app that individuals use and they can input their data while they're driving. It helps alert people whether there's an accident ahead or if there's traffic. So I think that's a really good example that just people use that they maybe don't consider it to be GIS. Something else I can think of is the election maps that we see whenever these election results are coming in, you see these maps and that has all these counties and some are blue and red. So those are created through the use of GIS. So there's many applications I think just aside from public health.
Rachel Levy: That's really interesting. Thank you so much Gina. As a part of Youthmappers, we often get asked, "Why don't you just use Google maps to find something?" How would each of you respond to that?
Sasha Guttentag: So I would say that Google maps is actually way more limited than we think. You hear those stories sometimes about like people driving and they're led to a river that they can't cross with their car obviously. So open source maps tend to have way more detailed information. But aside from that, I think just this, there's a growing interest in having open source information, information that isn't protected by some organization that you can't just use freely. It seems kind of silly that maps aren't, is not more common for them to be open source. So I think that a really important part of these open source map is just providing the information to anyone who wants it. If that's like developing an application that uses maps, we have that API that it's free to use to connect technologies to open source maps. No one owns the data and everyone can contribute. And the more that people contribute, the more that the maps become more detailed, more accurate, more updated, and more accurate.
Gina Gonzalez: I think also it's important to add that yes, that anybody can contribute to these maps, but they are being validated by other people. So it's not like people just throwing in this random incorrect information. It is eventually validated by other people.
Rachel Levy: Yeah, I agree. I think it's a really valuable part of mapping that it's not only community based but community validated and driven by kind of what we can see as individuals mapping from New York into villages in India, in South Africa, in Tanzania, and being able to both add our own part of the equation as well as have someone on the ground validate it. I was also thinking how would you at this stage in your mapping careers, encourage other people to get involved in mapping and mapping based projects?
Sasha Guttentag: If you're a member of the NYU community, then you should definitely join us at Youthmappers, but I think the most beautiful part of open source mapping is that you can literally do it from your pajamas at home. It's really easy to learn and it's great because you can make a tangible impact by taking the time to contribute to these humanitarian mapping projects.
Rodrigo Delatorre: So this is going to be our last question regarding the future of GIS. What do you hope for it to be?
Gina Gonzalez: My vision for GIS would be just to get more people involved and to remove this idea that it's this really complicated thing to use. It's actually very simple once you get to understand the software. And I think that we should start learning it at a younger age. I mean, I'm taking my first GIS class next semester at Wagner School of Public Administration, which is really great, but it'd be nice to have learned this years prior. So I think it'd be nice to get people started on this earlier on, either in high school and middle school, whenever.
Sasha Guttentag: I really envision the future applications of GIS to work towards more tailored health interventions, sort of meeting people where they're at. So if there's certain areas that we know vulnerable populations spend time in then we can design interventions that provide resources to them right there in those locations. One example is with this opioid crisis that's currently happening in the United States, they have current interventions that are designed to provide areas that people overdosing might frequent, sort of like bodega type areas providing the owners of those shops with naloxone or anti-OD type medications. So that's one example of sort of using locations to provide immediate care to people who need it. So I'm really hoping for a future that expands upon that, those types of interventions.
Rachel Levy: Absolutely. Thank you so much to both of you for participating in this podcast. I think it's a really interesting conversation to have around community when you're thinking about the age of the internet and how we can hold people accountable to a specific place when all of our work, when all of our actions are done online and there's not a lot of physically based work to be done in our modern society. It was a pleasure speaking with both of you.
Rodrigo Delatorre: Yeah, it was a pleasure. Thank you very much. And I think that's all we have for the episode of I AM GPH. We hopefully have demystified the topic of humanitarian mapping for you all. If you're interested in learning more or if you want to get involved with mapping, we really encourage you to reach out to NYU Youthmappers through NYU Engage, or we also have a Facebook page as well as an email. You can reach us at email@example.com.