Notes from #NepalQuake Mapping Sessions @RyersonU Geography

May 4th, 2015 by Claus Rinner

This is a brief account of two “Mapping for Nepal” sessions at Ryerson University’s Department of Geography and Environmental Studies. In an earlier post found at, I collected information on humanitarian mapping for these same sessions.

Mapathon @RyersonU, Geography & Spatial on Monday, 27 April 2015, 10am-2pm. 1(+1) prof, 2 undergrads, 3 MSAs, 1 PhD, 1 alumnus came together two days after the devastating earthquake to put missing roads, buildings, and villages in Nepal on the map using the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team’s (HOT) task manager. Thank you to MSA alumnus Kamal Paudel for initiating and co-organizing this and the following meetings.


Mapathon @RyersonU, Geography & Spatial on Sunday, 3 May 2015, 4pm-8pm. Our second Nepal mapathon brought together a total of 15 volunteers, including undergraduate BA in Geographic Analysis and graduate Master of Spatial Analysis (MSA) students along with MSA alumni, profs, and members of the Toronto-area GIS community. On this Sunday afternoon we focused on completing and correcting the road/track/path network and adding missing buildings to the map of Nepal’s most affected disaster zones. Photos via our tweets:


My observations and thoughts from co-organizing and leading these sessions, and participating in the HOT/OSM editing:

  • In addition to supporting the #EqResponseNp in a small way, the situation provided an invaluable learning opportunity for everyone involved. Most participants of our sessions had never contributed to OSM, and some did not even know of its existence, despite being Geography students or GIS professionals. After creating OSM accounts and reading up on the available OSM and Nepal-specific documentation, participants got to map hundreds of points, lines, or polygons within just a couple of hours.
  • The flat OSM data model – conflating all geometries and all feature types in the same file – together with unclear or inconsistent tagging instructions for features such as roads, tracks, and paths challenged our prior experience with GIS and geographic data. Students in particular were concerned about the fact that their edits would go live without “someone checking”.
  • While the HOT task manager and general workflow of choosing, locking, editing, and saving an area was a bit confusing at first, the ID editor used by most participants was found to be intuitive and was praised by GIS industry staff as “slick”.
  • The most recent HOT tasks were marked as not suitable for beginners after discussions among the OSM community about poor-quality contributions, leaving few options for (self-identified) beginners. It was most interesting to skim over the preceding discussion on the HOT chat and mailing list, e.g. reading a question about “who we let in”. I am not sure how the proponent would define “we” in a crowd-mapping project such as OSM.
  • There was a related Twitter #geowebchat on humanitarian mapping for Nepal: “How can we make sure newbies contribute productively?”, on Tuesday, 5 May 2015 (see transcript at
  • The HOT tasks designated for more experienced contributors allowed to add post-disaster imagery as a custom background. I was not able to discern whether buildings were destroyed or where helicopters could land to reach remote villages, but I noticed numerous buildings (roofs) that were not included in the standard Bing imagery and therefore missing from OSM.
  • The GIS professionals mentioned above included two analysts with a major GIS vendor, two GIS analysts with different regional conservation authorities, a GIS analyst with a major retail chain, and at least one GIS analyst with a municipal planning department (apologies for lack of exact job titles here). The fact that these, along with our Geography students, had mostly not been exposed to OSM is a concern, which however can be easily addressed by small changes in our curricula or extra-curricular initiatives. I am however a bit concerned as to whether the OSM community will be open to collaborating with the #GIStribe.
  • With reference to the #geowebchat, I’d posit that newbie != newbie. Geographers can contribute a host of expertise around interpreting features on the ground, even if they have “never mapped” (in the OSM sense of “mapping”). Trained GIS experts understand how feature on the ground translate into data items and cannot be considered newbies either. In addition, face-to-face instructions by, and discussion with, experienced OSM contributors would certainly help to achieve a higher efficiency and quality of OSM contributions. In this sense, I am hoping that we will have more crowd-mapping sessions @RyersonU Geography, for Nepal and beyond.

Comments are closed.