Newly graduated from The George Washington University, Ian Garland is searching for a job in which he can put his geography skills to use. The 21-year-old spent his college years involved in the university’s Humanitarian Mapping Society — a group that uses geographic information systems and satellite imagery to map developing countries.
What is it about mapping that draws you in?
I think I’m most interested because of the potential. I’m a very visual person. I like to see and interact with things, and I like seeing relationships. Looking at a graph or a chart, you can see some kind of relationship. Being able to do that in a spatial context, that’s a map. And there’s so many different applications. You have all of your data plugged in, and there’s a point to it. I like the directness. I’m a very direct person. Just tell me what’s going on. It tells me what I need to know in emergency situations. There’s no beating around the bush.
Why is what you do necessary? Isn’t Google Maps enough?
I usually get the question, “Hasn’t Google Maps already done everything?” And the answer is a blatant no for two main reasons. One, Google Maps doesn’t have the resources to get everywhere, nor do they have time to map small communities in developing nations where they can’t sell advertising. Two, maps are really human-based. The roads they’ve built, the homes they’re living in, the environment. And they’re always changing.
What kind of places are we talking about?
There’s a slum in Kenya with 100,000-plus people that wasn’t on Google Maps or on the radar of the Kenyan government. They’re not going to be bringing their Google street car through the streets of a slum in Kenya. You just won’t see them there. You can get satellite images, sure. But that’s a glass pane. You can’t get the rich information.
What happened in that slum?
A team [of humanitarian mappers] approached the community and they organized and within a period of time they mapped where people were, prime hot spots for healthcare services and police force outposts. They brought the city to life. I’m really interested in taking that next step and going into the field and getting closer to where the community meets the map.
You want to go to those countries?
Correct. I just applied to a grant [program] through the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap team, which was a team we worked with. It’s a 12-month grant in Tanzania and Uganda, training communities on how to use the technology and empower themselves.
What is your process for creating a map?
We [humanitarian mappers] take satellite images provided by Microsoft and Bing and trace over them using a program called OpenStreetMap. We’ll look at satellite images and zoom in. Every person gets a square, and it’s cut up into grids like in a big city. That makes it more organized and efficient. It’s primarily roads, homes and other structures. But that can change depending on the task.
In what ways do the maps change?
Hurricane Irma just came through and now we [humanitarian mappers] have to map for relief. We are mapping for people who don’t have a map for themselves. So when you have a database of information on how many things are there, you can have an estimate of how many people are there, how many supplies they might need. More data, more informed decisions. More spatial data, better crisis management.
What’s an example of a place that has been mapped after a natural disaster?
The best example was in Haiti in 2010 when there was an earthquake. There was no map of Haiti. There was no resource for them to use, and within 72 hours a crowdsourcing team brought it to life. When I learned of that in my environmental hazards class, that’s when I really started to understand the relationship between humanitarian aid, technology, data and innovation.
Have you ever gone a day without using technology?
Yeah I’ve done that. I love it. I balance myself out by being able to relax and take a hike or go for a swim or chat with someone. You have to stay balanced. I spent four days on a long trail in Vermont and rarely used my phone.
Is that an escape for you?
Truly, it’s meditation. It’s a nice way to live your life.
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