90 young mappers and one flabbergasted older one

07 December 2015 | mackerski

My name is Dermot, and I’m a Mapaholic. I started adding bits of Ireland to OpenStreetMap early in 2007 and I haven’t stopped yet. When I started, there were pockets of coverage and a few interurban roads mapped. But basic things like a coastline were still missing. I was immediately bitten by the bug, bitten badly, and I have walked and driven large distance in places I would otherwise never have seen just to put them on the map. I won’t dwell on this, because this story isn’t about me, but it will help explain my reaction to the main part of this story once we get there.

It’s also worth mentioning that I’ve spent a lot of the time between 2007 and now doing OSM things beyond mere mapping. I’ve attended a number of international OSM conferences, as well as meetups and mapping parties. I’ve spoken at non-OSM events in Ireland in order to raise awareness and recruit mappers if I could. OSM is the kind of thing that not everybody will take to, but I think I managed to enthuse a few people in my time. Despite this, the Irish OpenStreetMap community is pretty small and we don’t get together all that much. For many of us, mapping is a fairly solitary pursuit. And we only rarely mobilise, mapping-party-style, to blitz one particular project.

It is in this context that I want to relate what I did last Friday instead of going to work. My employer has the enlightened policy of permitting staff to be released from work for a “Cares” day to do something worthwhile and ideally charitable in the community. I took my day to attend the Map Lesotho 24-hour Mapathon in Portmarnock Community School in North Dublin. As an experienced OSM Mapper, I hoped that I could make myself useful, be a mentor for less experienced mappers, maybe get time to knuckle down and do some mapping myself. So on a wet and windy morning I trundled east to Portmarnock in the dark and was welcomed into the school.

Others have told the story of the successful mapping day, of the area tasks mapped to completion or quality-controlled, of how much fun it was to be a student taking part. So I want to tell the other story, the story of being an OSM old fogey unexpectedly in the midst of this event. I want to articulate to both the participants and to other mappers like me how special this event was.

I won’t spend too long setting the scene - this event consisted of a number of people assembled in one place in order to collaborate on a mapping task against a set of stated goals. Everybody participating did so against a well understood goal, the creation of a useful full coverage map data set for Lesotho, whose administration can benefit a lot from it. This school has an existing relationship with Lesotho of which this mapping project simply forms part.

I had been briefed in advance on how things were to work. There would be 90 (90? really? Wow!) students from various classes working in shifts over the course of 24 hours. Quite a few of these had already mapped before (amazing!). Three separate computer labs were to be used in order to cater for the peak demand during the middle of the school day. I took up residence in one of them and looked to make myself useful.

The big revelation was how little my hosts needed my help. Not everybody had mapped before and those who had were not all power mappers, but a decent number of experienced mapping hands from the student body itself cruised the room offering assistance to their peers. Perhaps more impressively, this assistance was welcomed openly. There appeared to be no fragile egos in this group.

As I’ve hinted, the event was a great success. So high was the intensity of the mapping that the school suffered network connectivity problems to the OpenStreetMap servers. Once due to getting banned by automated systems intended to counter excessive use of resources, once for reasons not yet clear, but very probably because 90 mappers (90! Wow!) all firing heavy traffic at the same server could look a lot like a denial of service attack. These two interruptions created a natural break for the students and allowed me to deliver possibly the only valuable service not already covered by the students - knowing where to find the OSM admins and help get us unbanned.

I want to take time to address how amazing all this is - I’ve explained how I have devoted time to recruiting new mappers. There was a time when I could probably name each and every active mapper in Ireland. Although there has been a marked uplift since then, I can tell you that 90 (!) is still a significant number in the context of OSM in Ireland. For that matter, I’m not aware of any single-location mapping event of this size anywhere in the world. I certainly haven’t witnessed one.

My most cherished moment during the day came towards the middle of the school day. This was the peak time for the whole event, and my computer lab was fully occupied when a group of girls came in hoping to find places. I directed them to the third computer lab which I understood was just becoming available. Because I was aware that there would be no mentor in that room, I asked, as I often would at a mapping party, whether they knew what to do - their answer, “oh yeah, we know how to map”.  That was the moment when I knew for sure that this was a mapping event like no other.

What I have learned from all of this: firstly, I wanted to understand how 90 mappers (90!) can suddenly spring up in an apparently normal school. I quickly formed a theory on this one. Many OSMers do what they do because they like maps in the abstract - the challenge of mapping the world is motivation enough. It turns out that most people don’t think like we do. Most folk want to know why they are mapping, what positive outcome will result from them mapping. These young mappers knew why they were mapping. They mapped to give the people of Lesotho a necessary tool to improve their society. Those of us who want to motivate people to map should take note of this. We must be cautious of overly abstract messaging when we promote our project.

I was also struck by the fact that, despite so many mappers based in Portmarnock (did I mention there were 90 of them?), the mapping of the Portmarnock area itself, while by no means terrible, is no more than average in terms of accuracy or detail. In many ways this just goes to reinforce what I have already mentioned above - these are people who chose to map Lesotho, they didn’t set out to map the world in general. It may be that they haven’t even strongly considered the need to map Portmarnock. Aren’t there already plenty of maps of the place? But as somebody whose ambition does include a very detailed mapping of Portmarnock, and of all of Ireland, I will certainly be doing what I can to make sure that these students don’t hang up their mapping boots once Lesotho is completely mapped. There is plenty of work to do at home.

To conclude, I would like to express my gratitude to all involved in this event for the welcome they extended to me on the day. Most if not all of the participants have put enormous amounts of time into this project and other related ones. Many have themselves visited Lesotho and others will do so soon. I just showed up for the day and tried to be helpful - indeed, I goofed off at two in the morning for a night’s sleep because I had commitments the next day. But I cherish the welcome I received from staff and students alike and I am humbled to have learned more than I taught.

To those in Portmarnock school: please continue mapping at home once you have the time. To all OSMers: when you are trying to animate others to map, please consider this story. The next generation of mappers might be easier to find than you think.

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