Women's Geospatial Perspectives Bring New Ways of Thinking

March 17, 2021

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Women have always been involved in the process of map-making. We know that as early as 1234 CE, women were working alongside male cartographers, doing the work, mostly without credit for what they accomplished. Until fairly recently, women were not a visible part of the map-making community, let alone recognized as an integral part of the data development process. This is changing, and while there is still work to be done to create parity in the map-making community, organizations like Youth Mappers are changing the landscape by providing opportunities for leadership development among women around the world.

YouthMappers is a global network of universities connected by their desire to make the world a better place. The organization’s mission is to “cultivate a generation of young leaders to create resilient communities and to define their world by mapping it.” Dr. Patricia Solis, the director and principal investigator for YouthMappers, describes it as a “community of communities, within a community.” It’s not just about the maps; it is many people from many different backgrounds with different opinions, coming together to work for a greater good.

Currently, students at 247 universities across 55 countries are able to join YouthMappers chapters, while graduates and faculty can participate as advisors, fellows, and regional ambassadors. All of these people come together under the umbrella of opensource technology and mapping. YouthMappers connect through technology and other communities, like the OpenStreetMap community. This Venn diagram of communities allows the students participating in YouthMappers to plug into the broader community instantly. “[YouthMappers] is already there inside of it, it's within. So, it's not like we are on the outside knocking, waiting to get in. We're already inside,” Dr. Solis said.

 Not just “humanitarian” work

The Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team is one of the organizations that acted as a catalyst for YouthMappers. According to Dr. Solis, some of the coordination methods within the humanitarian mapping community provided a “spark” for what would become YouthMappers.

 “We needed to be able to do this faster and better in the future, but also get ahead of the game,” she explained. In the midst of the conversation about how organizations could mobilize more quickly and more efficiently to support humanitarian crises, YouthMappers was born. What started as a conversation about humanitarian efforts soon became a conversation about what people can do in their own communities.

Stellamaris Nakacwa is a graduate student and regional ambassador for the organization. Ms. Nakacwa was introduced to YouthMappers during her second year of her Bachelor of Science in Geomatics and Land Management in Uganda. For Ms. Nakacwa, making maps is not just about a philanthropic humanitarian effort performed on the behalf of another community. It isn’t about how she could help people externally, but rather about how she can help people in her own city and surrounding communities—by improving slums in Kampala, for example.

Ms. Nakacwa and her colleagues approached community leaders using maps to describe and display the devastating extent of one of the most common problems in the slums: hunger. While it is not the only factor affecting the slums, they felt it was an issue that everyone could understand. People need to eat. If they are not eating, they cannot perform basic tasks.

 “…We need to inform this government that people are not eating. And we can do it by collecting these data and presenting it to the different municipal councils.”

Ms. Nakacwa explained that there are also many policies in her community that need to change to support women, but in order for that to happen, information—data—needs to be collected. The difficulties that women face, she said, are partly political and there are “so many policies that we have to sit and look into and say, ‘We need to change this to make sure that there is a space for women.’ We need this kind of information.”

The tools for mapping and collecting data are good to have, but the people affected need to be able to participate in the conversation. In order for the correct people to participate, analysts need to understand who is most impacted and how

 Addressing the blind spot

Cisgender white men are, and have been, the majority of the mapmakers around the world since mapping became a profession. Their unconscious biases about the world influence the maps they make; there are details other genders and underserved populations see as differently important, which are often overlooked.

If one group has been making the maps for all of this time, what do we not know about the world? What are we missing?

“I don’t consider myself feminist,” said Natalia da Silveira Arruda, “because I never studied feminist theory. But at the same time, I feel that I empower female students [by] giving an example.”

Ms. Arruda is passionate about access for women, YouthMappers, and offering mapping opportunities to as many students, of all genders, as are interested in the mission. As a professor at the Universidad de Antioquia, Medellin, she helped to establish the UdeA YouthMappers chapter in 2016, which evolved into a research group called GeoLab.

Ms. Arruda connected with the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team in 2014 when she started to develop and coordinate a mapping pilot project of an informal community in the city of Cartagena de Indias. After working with HOT and gaining experience with OSM, Ms. Arruda worked with students at UdeA to start a local YouthMappers chapter. The chapter was started in 2016 and remains one of the most active chapters in Latin America. The chapter is working on several community projects including “COASTMAP-URABÁ” and a collaborative map of cycling infrastructure in Medellin.

One of the most important aspects of the cycling project is understanding cycling infrastructure as it relates to women. According to Ms. Arruda, previous research suggests that women often choose to ride different paths, or the same path at different times, to increase safety. The research and mapping team will analyze all of the data they collect to see whether this remains true in the cycling infrastructure in Medellin. So far, she said, preliminary results indicate that in addition to economic and environmental reasons, women in Medellin are making decisions about how they cycle based on personal safety.

If we are not including women in the conversation about, and the production of, maps, are we missing out on opportunities to improve safety for all people? And how may we be missing out on ways to improve other aspects of life, such as education, employment and community services?

 What happens when women are in control of the maps?  

Women have become a more integral part of conversations in the mapping world, particularly within the larger discussion about equity. Is it because efforts to create gender parity or increase diversity in technology are more prevalent? Is it because these topics are being studied and discussed? 

Research indicates that when women are making decisions about data, data collection, and what gets mapped, we see a more secure and safe worldYouthMappers’ Everywhere She Maps initiative is focused on investment in women and girls’ security, building women leaders, and building the local capacity of the female mapping community.

According to Bloomberg CityLab, in developing countries “…childcare centers, health clinics, abortion clinics, and specialty clinics that deal with women’s health are vastly underrepresented.” In 2011, the OSM community rejected an appeal to add a “childcare” tag, which is how child care facilities are identified. The tag was finally approved in 2013, and in the time since, it’s been used more than 12,000 times. It’s not that the facilities didn’t exist, it’s that the men doing the mapping didn’t know or care enough to notice.

Women are often the primary caretakers of families and are the ones seeking food, medical care, and other resources for their families. If women are expanding location knowledge for themselves, they are also expanding knowledge and opportunities for their families. As Melinda Gates wrote in her 2019 book, “The Moment of Lift”: "Gender diversity is not just good for women; it's good for anyone who wants results.”

 Leaders Today

A job survey done by GIS Lounge in 2014 showed that 37 percent of the survey respondents identified as female. Women’s participation in the OSM community is estimated to be about 2-5 percent. YouthMappers and the Everywhere She Maps initiative aims to increase the percentage of women involved in mapping overall, by providing women with leadership opportunities within the YouthMappers organizational structure, and continually providing training and resources so that women have the capacity to bring these lessons back to their communities.

Maliha Mohiuddin is another YouthMapper who participated in the program as an undergraduate, and has gone on to work with YouthMappers as a fellow and regional ambassador. She is currently working on her master’s degree and has a long list of organizations with whom she has collaborated to develop trainings, technical workshops, and fieldwork opportunities for other YouthMappers, using technologies like OSM, Mapillary, Kobo, and other tools.

Participants in Ms. Mohiuddin’s events were introduced to the YouthMappers organization and software, edited maps, participated in various group activities on resilience and stress, and applied their training through a daylong fieldwork exercise. Opportunities like these are important, particularly to women, because in many places women are restricted from joining fieldwork events due to concerns from male fieldwork organizers. Ms. Mohiuddin, Ms. Nakacwa, and Ms. Arruda all commented that they have either been told or have heard from other women that women might not be “up to the task” or would be “in danger” when participating in these events.

“I learned in YouthMappers that network is very important and very powerful,” Ms. Arruda said, “to create strength, contacts, and capabilities.” Through the interchange of knowledge, YouthMappers can overcome these perceived barriers, and set up teams that create safe opportunities for all.

The mapping and data collection efforts, led by female student leaders like Ms. Arruda, Ms. Mohiuddin, and Ms. Nakacwa, are the backbone of the Everywhere She Maps initiative and the YouthMappers network. As Dr. Solis said at the launch of Youth Mappers, “Youth aren’t the leaders of tomorrow, they are the leaders today!”


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