A German Mapper at Kathmandu Living Labs!

Germany- a country where maps and map data are available in a huge variety. What perspective does a German Geography student bring to OSM Nepal and how can she learn from mapping practices in the Nepalese capital?

During my studies in Geography at the University of Heidelberg, I learnt about different kinds of maps that are available in my country and how important map data is for urban planning, governments, social networks, disaster management and basically for everything. Additionally, I learnt about OpenStreetMap ( for further information see OpenStreetMap), the free online map created by the community and the possibilities this open-source map offers in our country. Germany has the highest number of OpenStreetMap members and thus very detailed OpenStreetMap data. This free data is being used in route services, social network analysis and in many other applications. See here for details. But what about other countries? What is the state of the map in less developed countries with less access to map data? Are they aware of OpenStreetMap? These were the questions that I asked myself during my first university year and that were soon to be answered.

Being interested in a career in Disaster Management, I attended a seminar on “Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI) in humanitarian aid and disaster management” at my university. VGI is the broader term for all geo-data that is voluntarily put online for the collective use. Offered by Prof. João Porto de Albuquerque at the Geo-informatics department of the University of Heidelberg, the course was targeted to students interested in disaster management. Consisting of theoretical presentations and practical tutorials, the course was supplemented by webinars – online presentations held by disaster mapping specialists from Jakarta, Nigeria and Kathmandu. Through these webinars students got first hand information directly from the field of disaster management – and I came into first contact with Kathmandu Living Labs!

During one of these webinars, Dr. Nama Raj Budhathoki, the Project Lead and advisor of the team, illustrated the existing situation in Nepal: the map data found in the country is very poor and official data not readily available. In addition to that Nepal is facing the hazard of an overdue earthquake. In order to prepare for disaster resilience, Kathmandu Living Labs team mapped health and educational facilities within the Kathmandu Valley. They reached a pretty big number of people through sensitization presentations and Mapping Parties. These activities helped to develop the OpenStreetMap Nepal community.

Pursuing a career in disaster management, I soon realized that this project could teach me a lot about disaster management and mapping techniques. Disaster management professionals often got difficulties to understand the perspective of the people in disaster affected areas, and to define how the peoples’ needs can be best met. To gain that perspective, I thought it is most helpful to put myself in the place of the people and work with professionals that can give me an insight in the field. Thus, I applied to Kathmandu Living Labs and soon after found myself, being a very happy member of the team!

Over the last about one and half months, I have gone through an intense learning process. Being involved in the Full Exposure Survey from my first days, I promptly got taught how to identify different components of buildings from hazard perspective. To make sure this data appears correctly on  OpenStreetMap, these steps needed to be followed: first of all, the structural facts of the individual buildings need to be added to a survey form that is accessed over an application on the mobile phone. In the second step the surveyors need to add new features and correct errors that were detected in the field manually using online or offline editors. Finally these forms need to be uploaded to OpenStreetMap. Supporting the surveyors in each of these steps, I got used to working with the mobile phone app and improved my digitization and image interpretation skills through working with the field papers and JOSM, the offline OpenStreetMap editor JOSM. Gaining technical knowledge was however only one way in which I could benefit from the field survey. Through visiting the different wards in the city, the fieldwork also gave me a chance to learn about the layout of the city and the local culture – as a minor in ethnology a great additional advantage for me!

Doing the field survey!
Doing the field survey!

Getting confident working in the field, I assisted the project coordinator in her organizational work. Being used to working with ArcGIS, first of all I got taught how to work with the open-source equivalent — Quantum GIS. This free software was used to create the areas and field papers the surveyors use for  field survey. After an introduction into the software, I could support the project coordinator in these tasks. Apart from this, I helped her documenting the survey data and creating statistics using PSPP, an open-source statistics software. The described work assignments helped me to improve my technical knowledge as well as my computer skills and gave me the chance to utilize the theoretical knowledge I gained during my university studies in a practical and professional way.

In addition to that I improved my writing and research skills developing blogs and newspaper articles, creating tables and helping with the documentation. This will not only be beneficial for my university studies, it will also help me in my future career in disaster management, as documentation and publishing are getting more and more important in this field.

After working with Kathmandu Living Labs for 6 weeks, I am stunned about the insights I could gain and how much the team taught me about mapping, disaster management and sensitizing the public. I am very looking forward to my next months working with the team and am keen to find out what further insights I will get and what further skills I will acquire!

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