The Relief Mapathon


What is a Mapathon?

A mapathon is an event where participants contribute to an open source map. Mapathons are generally done for relief purposes. The public is invited to make improvements in a pre-selected geographical area to improve coverage and to help disaster relief workers asses risk and plan accordingly. Several online tools facilitate mapathons, like the HOT Tasking Manager used as an example in this guide.

When a hurricane or an earthquake strikes, mapathons become a valuable tool to help ground responders from afar. Libraries, universities, colleges, digital labs, and similar groups are perfect organizations to help translate the good will of many volunteers into data that can save lives. The event in turn becomes a way to open the door to the work that your digital team does outside urgencies. The same techniques used to map disaster zones—drawing and verifying geometries on a raster image—are used to do other types of cultural and scientific work, for example.

Learn more at Missing Maps.

A Note for Top Administrators

A mapathon can bring substantial positive attention to your office, and help you build many connections around your campus. A mapathon, in turn, can benefit from full institutional support and your help. If you are a top-administrator, you can use this framework to help you create your own preparedness plan for mapathons suited to your local environment. The most important job you can do is to make sure that the top-level communication channels of the university are available to the organizers to help fill the rooms with volunteers.

Something else you should consider is giving the option to a large number of your staff to participate in the event. Not only will this increase the amount of relief data, this is bound to increase morale in your institution.

Laying the foundation

You don’t have to wait until disaster hits to begin preparations for your institution and your team. Here are some of the things you can do to react more efficiently the day that disaster does strike, and you want to help out:

After the Disaster, Before the Mapathon

If everything is in place the following steps can be deployed in 6-7 days.

  1. Gather your team, including those capable of teaching the tool, and decide you are going to help.
  2. Do research on HOT-OSM (or relevant platform) to see if projects are starting to be requested by responders on the ground. If at first they don’t come up, they might in a matter of hours or a few days depending on the situation.
  3. Start making calls to your networks and research the situation on the ground as much as you can to help you make informed decisions.
  4. Secure your first room.
  5. Make the poster.
  6. Secure refreshments for the event: Pizza, coffee, fruit, etc.
  7. Create a plan for RSVPs that collects emails of participants. This will not only help you plan, but will allow you to follow up after the event.
  8. Blast on every channel you can think of, including the university’s main communication office if possible.
  9. If you are the first to jump in the fray, talk to your colleagues at other universities to gauge interesting in turning it into a movement. If others decide to join you, create a hashtag.
  10. Keep blasting leading up to the event on social media. If you connected with others make sure to use the hashtag.
  11. If the local or national press notices your efforts and would like to help spread the word, make sure to let your administration and communications team know.
  12. Decide who the helpers are in addition to the main trainer. One helper per 20 participants should be enough. Be sure to keep some reserve helpers on call.

During the event

  1. Write on a whiteboard useful information like links, social media and HOT-OSM hashtags, names of the helpers, etc.
  2. Feel free to play some low-volume music to make the space more welcoming.
  3. Spend the first 30-40 minutes training the whole group. Make sure to take time to let visitors from outside your institution know about the facilities, coffee, bathrooms, etc.
  4. Use name tags or lanyards to identify the “helpers.” One of the helpers should be wholly in charge of logistics and making sure that participants are comfortable and can find bathrooms.
  5. Organize the room around small clusters of 3-4 volunteers if possible. Volunteers can help each other for most things. Let the volunteers know that they can discuss with each other.
  6. Get to work & walk around the room helping out people who get stuck or have questions. If you want to channel the help in more efficient ways you can use color coded stickies that volunteers place in their laptops or working surface to let you know what type of help they need.
  7. If you are connecting with other groups around the nation or world, make sure to take breaks to connect, say hi, show collective results, etc.
  8. After the end of the hour encourage others to stay in touch with each other, show the results of your effort by displaying the stats graph for your project, and make sure to send everyone with a round of applause for each other.

After the event

  1. Celebrate with your team. You’ve done good in the world.
  2. Send an email thanking everyone that participated.
  3. Prepare a simple report detailing what worked and what could be done better to help upper administrators refine the local framework.
  4. Follow up with the communications team about post-event narratives.
  5. Make sure to follow up with the relief organizations in the disaster area if you can to make sure your efforts were well received. Share the news through your different communication channels.

A Note on Skills and Timing

A project is only partially complete once a preliminary open source map has been made. Any mapping project on Open Street Maps, for example, goes through two phases before it is considered complete and made public:

  1. Mapping: Initial user makes a first pass attempt at outlining particular structures of interest.
  2. Validation: Second user ensures that the mapping contributions of the first were accurate and makes any necessary corrections.

The former requires only basic skills and is easily suitable for a mapathon. The OSM documentation suggests that you need to be experienced for the latter, but beginners can still usefully participate in the validation process by pinpointing particular parts of the review process and marking your work for the review of other experienced users. Even if your event happens once the mapping phase is mostly complete, your team can help carry the project to completion by working on this quality control portion of the process.

See the resources below for tutorials on how to incorporate validation into your mapathon.


We welcome your feedback. If you have ideas on how to improve this model, don’t hesitate to contribute.