USC competes against UCLA in mapathon competition

Organizers said they reached out to people from different disciplines to form the USC team that faced UCLA in a mapathon on Wednesday at the Polymathic Lab in Leavey Library. Photo courtesy of Andy Rutkowski.

The first mapathon competition between USC and UCLA took place on Wednesday at the Polymathic Innovation Lab in Leavey Library. Its goal was to assist the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap team by examining satellite images and identifying geographic features and infrastructure, building data that other humanitarian groups can use to do their work on the ground.

Librarian Andy Rutkowski said the lab had previously held a mapathon to provide data for the Red Cross to determine where aid could be delivered in Puerto Rico after a devastating hurricane struck the island in September. Rutkowski initially reached out to the Spatial Sciences Institute to recruit members for their first mapathon to address the immediate damage caused by Hurricane Maria.

“We were doing the building outlines” at the Puerto Rico mapathon, Rutkowski said. “A lot of that work was being done for the Red Cross so they would know where to set up for each station, where people live or where infrastructure would be.”

This is the first time USC and UCLA competed against each other to determine who can map the greatest number of features. Rutkowski and UCLA GIS Coordinator Yoh Kawano of the Institute for Digital Research and Education spearheaded the initiative.

In addition to the Polymathic Innovation Lab and Spatial Sciences Institute, members of SC Mappers and the USC mapathon team supported the event. Seniors Natalie Milistein, Precious Nwaoha and Alex Chen all volunteered to help Rutkowski run the event and attract campus attention through social media and a booth stationed outside of Leavey Library.

Chen, the vice president of SC Mappers, said the event appealed not only to students interested in geodesign, but also those across all academic disciplines. Chen added that he was particularly drawn to humanitarian mapping because of its potential to effect real change.

“I feel like it really exemplifies that, whatever your skill set or background, you still have some capacity to … do something to improve a lot of other people around you — not just in your community, but around the world,” Chen said.

USC and UCLA were not the only institutions working on the humanitarian mapping event. According to Rutkowski, over 150 mapathons occurred all across the country and world during the event. During Wednesday’s mapathon, students collaborated on projects from around the world including Mexico, Colombia, Mali and the Philippines.

Milistein said that through the humanitarian mapping, she was able to “organize change to help underserved communities” — and the prospect of working across environments to form relationships with institutions across the world was a common sentiment. Rutkowski called it “transformative.”

“Being connected to the space, our lived environment … I feel like something like this has such a positive impact, contributing information and data so people can know they are doing great work, great humanitarian work,” Rutkowski said.