We in EGEA Turku have an ongoing tradition of organising one or more mapathons every year, and soon it’s time for the next one. This time I’m one of the organisers, but before getting my hands dirty, let’s discuss the very concept of mapathon: what is it all about? In this blog post, I will paint a comprehensive picture of recent mapathons in Turku, drawing examples from both EGEAns’ own experiences and web sources. After uncovering the current picture, I will continue to build on the plentiful opportunities mapathon has to offer. Because mapathon is a highly participatory process, I also invite the reader (You!) to imagine how mapathon and its guidelines could be developed in the future. Could mapathon become an even more inclusive and easily accessible activity? Could that attract new people to participate and organise mapathons, both locally and globally?
Basically, mapathon means “map marathon”. It’s an event where volunteers gather to cocreate geographic information; running a marathon is usually not involved. Actually, isn’t it a bit far-fetched to compare mapathon to marathon at all? First of all, mapathon usually isn’t as long an event as marathon. And even more importantly, mapathon isn’t a competition, but everyone is invited to join mapping on their own skill level instead. After all, there are things in common too: participating in either a marathon or a mapathon can be rewarding and inspirational. Maybe better said in Finnish: mapathonissa on suuren urheilujuhlan tuntua!
Mapathon is also a member of a vast family of other participatory, oftentimes non-competitive and always lightheartedly geeky events known as hackathons and editathons. Some recent examples of these other events include Hacklab Summit Finland, Ympäristötiede Wikipediaan! -editathon, and lastly, Hack4OpenGLAM, in which I have participated a couple of times.
If the variation between different kinds of hackathons sounds overwhelming, that indeed can be the case between different types of mapathons, too. However, the most common type of a mapathon is actually very particular: editing OpenStreetMap for pedagogical and/or humanitarian purposes. For example, Green, Rautenbach & Coetzee evaluated university students’ motivation during humanitarian OpenStreetMap mapathons in their article published in 2019.
OpenStreetMap is one of the best-known examples of participatory GIS – I would call it “the wikipedia among maps”. It is suitable for mapathons for numerous reasons: it is published under an open licence, provides global map data and that data is relatively easy to edit with a variety of websites, GIS programs and mobile apps. For these reasons, all of the mapathons I use as examples in this blog post are based on editing OSM. And even if this is an EGEA blog, OSM here doesn’t mean “Organisation and Strategy Meeting” but indeed OpenStreetMap.
Pedagogy, humanitarianism and development cooperation, on the other hand, are common motivators of mapathons. They can also go hand in hand, as Case #1 in the next chapter will show. However, there is an even broader range of possible reasons to organise a mapathon. Next, I will cover some reasons using a total of 3 recent case examples.
The current picture of mapathons in Turku
Case #1: Humanitarian OSM @ Kerttuli Upper Secondary School & Mwanza, 2019
Since the 2015 National core curriculum (LOPS), Geography teachers in Finnish upper secondary schools have had a new challenge: they have to find a way to demonstrate the use of “geomedia” by starting participatory, transversal and socially involved student projects. The humanitarian OSM mapathon is already proven to be an excellent tool for that, and our experiences in Turku make no exception. This October, I interviewed Aino Saarinen, an EGEA Turku alumna, on her experiences in organising such mapathons.
According to Aino, mapathons are often organised as a part of students’ optional specialisation studies. Because of that, participants are motivated to learn new mapping skills. The usual workflow looks like this: Firstly, students create their OSM accounts and log in to HOT-OSM Tasking Manager. It is a tool for organising public or private mapping projects for disaster response or other humanitarian purposes. The topical purposes change continuously: while I’m writing this blog post, one of the most urgent HOT-OSM projects consists of mapping roads and rivers in Guatemala as a response to Hurricane Julia. After logging in, each student chooses their own HOT-OSM task – a small piece of land in the project area. Finally, students use iD, the default web interface for editing OSM. For this to succeed well, participants have to get some help with their technical and practical problems.
A successful humanitarian mapathon was organised at the Kerttuli Upper Secondary School on October 10, 2019. Students mapped tasks in Mwanza, Tanzania, while local university students in Tanzania validated the quality of edits. Meanwhile, EGEAns in Turku helped students with mapping. According to Aino, the organisers could then get academic credits in return.
Case #2: Mapping archipelago of Nagu w/ Projekt Fredrika & EGEA Leuven, 2021
In Autumn 2021, students from Leuven, Belgium, visited us in Turku for an EGEA exchange. I came up with an idea to organise a semi-informal mapathon for the visiting students. Because the visitors were yet to familiarise themselves with Finland, I decided that we would take part in some local mapping project. In that way, the objectives for this mapathon were also pedagogical.
I chose that we would be mapping islands in Nagu (Nauvo), Southwestern Finland. Mapping the islands was started as an initiative by Projekt Fredrika rf, a NGO that aims to improve the representation of the Swedish-speaking Finns on Wikipedia. For example, Projekt Fredrika improves the Wikidata objects of islands that are located in traditionally Swedish-speaking areas. Our task was to link these items as attributes of the islands in OSM. This task turned out demanding, so we also defined coastlines of the islands in OSM. The participants told that they enjoyed the event. When compared to their usual geography studies, this time they could see the fruits of their labours in a more concrete way.
Case #3: Lounaistieto @ UTU Open Data Festival, 2022
On May 5, I participated in a mapathon that was jointly organised by University of Turku and Lounaistieto Regional Information Services, a mostly government-funded organisation providing open data on Southwestern Finland. A bit like EGEA Turku, Lounaistieto already has a tradition of organising mapathons, but for different purposes. Editing OSM is of interest to Lounaistieto because many local web services use OSM as a dataset. One such service is the routing engine by Föli, the public transport system in and around Turku. Earlier, there have been mapathons to make Föli’s routing work better, such as this one together with Digiroad and Digitransit back in 2019.
This time, our task was to improve service information data of Turku in OSM using a dataset provided by Lounaistieto. The dataset consisted of local services such as bakeries and ATM machines. The services were categorised by the neighbourhoods of Turku. I chose to improve the data around the hoods of Varissuo and Itäharju – two localitities that were very familiar to me at the time. I used the iD editor and when I was done with editing whatever service, I logged my changes into a Microsoft Excel file shared by Lounaistieto.
I felt proud that I could utilise my local everyday knowledge in the project. However, I couldn’t help but notice that it was impossible to perform some of the tasks while sitting at my laptop: I just simply hadn’t got enough information. Instead, I should have done on-site observant fieldwork! That inspired me to seek for alternative ways: it’s about time to rethink the mapathon.
What else could the mapathon become?
To rethink the mapathon, I’ll go back to basics. One of the very first events called a “mapathon” was organised in Atlanta, United States back in 2009. According to BBC News, there were around 200 volunteers, “sneakers on the ground going around mapping everything” in Atlanta. I want to reiterate that this was 2009! The smartphone was still a new invention – possibly just fascinating enough to give it a try in this new kind of hackathon.
What has happened since then? Have smartphones become too commonplace and, as such, too mundane for mapathons? Thankfully, that is not the case. Instead, there are new tools to coordinate mobile mapathons – why not try one of these tools? It’s time to ask what the mapathon will be like when running around actually is involved. Let’s find out and make mapathon mapathon again!
Case #4: Our upcoming Geography Awareness Week mapathon, 16.11.2022
On November 16, EGEA Turku will organise a mapathon as a part of the 35th Annual Geography Awareness Week. Starting with a short introduction at 16:00 EET, participants can then scatter in the darkness of autumnal Turku, either independently or in groups. We will be using the Team Mode of an OSM editor app called StreetComplete. On StreetComplete, participants can easily map for example street lights and roof shapes. In my experience, the app is just as easy to use as, say, Pokémon GO. After mapping for a while, any willing participants can then join again to share their experiences – or maybe have a refreshing drink together at our beloved campus pub, Proffan Kellari.
Even if StreetComplete is easy to use, it unfortunately is only native to Android. For this reason, we will have to offer alternative ways to participate for people that don’t own an Android device. Secondly, walking isn’t an ubiquitously accessible activity either: sometimes it rains, some places are forbidden or dangerous to enter, and mapathon participants can have different abilities and mobilities. There has to be plan B! Therefore, the people not wanting to run around will form our “validation team” – staying indoors, sitting comfortably at computers, chit-chatting and maybe drinking some hot chocolate. That’s what I call hygge!
In my opinion, our upcoming mapathon will be an interesting chance to develop the concept of mapathon. However, it shouldn’t and willn’t be the last chance. Please, have a moment to think about how you would organise a mapathon – maybe even leave a comment below. Together, we can aim towards more inclusive guidelines for mapathon.
is in charge of equality in EGEA Turku and is majoring in European Ethnology. He advocates open science and sometimes cooks eggs in a microwave oven. (It tastes good, he insists!)
is a small but agile organisation always interested in new members and partners. If you would like to organise a mapathon with EGEA Turku, please contact us by email or on our social medias.
Want to read more?
Green, Cameron & Victoria Rautenbach & Serena Coetzee: Evaluating Student Motivation and Productivity During Mapathons. The International Archives of the Photogrammetry, Remote Sensing and Spatial Information Sciences (2019).
Harju, Sara: Digitaalisen tulevaisuuden monet muodot puhuttivat Turun yliopiston seminaarissa. Turun yliopisto (2019).
Saarinen, Aino: Vapaaehtoiskartoitus oppimisen välineenä – Mapathonit. Versus (2021)
Tervetuloa mapathonien maailmaan! Kartta.nyt – Helsingin yliopiston kriittisen geomedialukutaidon tutkimustiimin tiedotuskanava (2021).