CWU News

CWU Geography Students Take Part in Global Humanitarian Digital Mapping Network

The CWU Geography Club has joined the YouthMappers, a global network of universities working on humanitarian mapping projects. Central Washington University is the first university in Washington state to open a chapter.

In the United States, most people take easy access to maps—like Google Maps—for granted. However, in many areas of the world, digital map data is nonexistent, outdated, or inaccessible by civilians. Up-to-date online maps are crucial for providing emergency response to natural disasters, planning, and mitigation.

YouthMappers ( is an organization that works with college students around the world to provide data for places where online maps may be sparse or missing. This is accomplished by tracing and tagging detailed satellite data and aerial photographs in social gatherings called "map-a-thons." YouthMappers is largely funded by USAID and much of the satellite data used in mapping is donated by Microsoft and Yahoo.

The data is placed in a publicly-available database called OpenStreetMap ( The maps are used for delivering humanitarian aid, planning for disaster response, and other essential services. At one such map-a-thon this past November, CWU students and faculty traced roads and residential areas in Zimbabwe to help Doctors Without Borders plan the delivery of medical services to rural populations.

"We are very excited for our new partnership and we look forward to working with YouthMappers on a variety of humanitarian mapping events," said Caleb Valko, Geography Club president. "This gives us a chance to make a difference in the lives of others while becoming more familiar with digitizing and OpenStreetMap."

Geography professor Sterling Quinn encouraged geography students to become involved in OpenStreetMap and YouthMappers because it gave students meaningful hands-on experience in cartography and enhanced their geographic information systems (GIS) skills.

"Students can download a satellite image, and start investigating what geographical landmarks are in the area, such as buildings, bridges, roads, or significant landscape features such as rivers or lakes," Quinn explained. "They then trace the outlines of the feature with a mouse or stylus, and tag it. It works best when you have someone local to verify what you've tagged."

But most people can identify a building or lake, he added.

Quinn has had his students trace and tag the terrain around Ellensburg, things like basic roads, businesses, windmills, and other structures.

"It really inspires them to look around and pay attention," he noted.

Quinn's students participated in a Map-a-thon on March 3, where they traced roads and structures in Siaya, Kenya to help the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) determine the optimal geographic allocation of health services. For more information about this project, go to and

More information can be found at or by contacting Sterling Quinn,

Media Contact: Valerie Chapman-Stockwell, Public Affairs, 509-963-1518,
March 6, 2017