A young refugee from Kosovo stands in front of a map of Hungary with her teacher.
A young refugee from Kosovo stands in front of a map of Hungary with her teacher during a geography class in Bekescsaba, Hungary, in 2007. Laszlo Balogh/Reuters

Too often, men. And money. But a team of OpenStreetMap users is working to draw new cartographic lines, making maps that more accurately—and equitably—reflect our space.

“For most of human history, maps have been very exclusive,” said Marie Price, the first woman president of the American Geographical Society, appointed 165 years into its 167-year history. “Only a few people got to make maps, and they were carefully guarded, and they were not participatory.” That’s slowly changing, she said, thanks to democratizing projects like OpenStreetMap (OSM).

OSM is the self-proclaimed Wikipedia of maps: It’s a free and open-source sketch of the globe, created by a volunteer pool that essentially crowd-sources the map, tracing parts of the world that haven’t yet been logged. Armed with satellite images, GPS coordinates, local community insights and map “tasks,” volunteer cartographers identify roads, paths, and buildings in remote areas and their own backyards. Then, experienced editors verify each element. Chances are, you use an OSM-sourced map every day without realizing it: Foursquare, Craigslist, Pinterest, Etsy, and Uber all use it in their direction services.

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When commercial companies like Google decide to map the not-yet-mapped, they use “The Starbucks Test,” as OSMers like to call it. If you’re within a certain radius of a chain coffee shop, Google will invest in maps to make it easy to find. Everywhere else, especially in the developing world, other virtual cartographers have to fill in the gaps.

But despite OSM’s democratic aims, and despite the long (albeit mostly hidden) history of lady cartographers, the OSM volunteer community is still composed overwhelmingly of men. A comprehensive statistical breakdown of gender equity in the OSM space has not yet been conducted, but Rachel Levine, a GIS operations and training coordinator with the American Red Cross, said experts estimate that only 2 to 5 percent of OSMers are women. The professional field of cartography is also male-dominated, as is the smaller subset of GIS professionals. While it would follow that the numbers of mappers of color and LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming mappers are similarly small, those statistics have gone largely unexamined.

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There is one arena where women’s OSM involvement, specifically, is growing, however: within organizations like Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) and Missing Maps, which work to develop parts of the map most needed for humanitarian relief, or during natural disasters.

When women decide what shows up on the map

HOT has worked on high-profile projects like the “crisis mapping” of Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria, and on humble but important ones, like helping one Zimbabwe community get on their city’s trash pickup list by highlighting piles of trash that littered the ground. Missing Maps is an umbrella group that aids it, made up of a coalition of NGOs, health organizations like the Red Cross, and data partners. It works to increase the number of volunteers contributing to humanitarian mapping projects by educating new mappers, and organizing thousands of map-a-thons a year.

In HOT’s most recent gender equity study, it found that 28 percent of remote mappers for its projects were women. And in micro-grant-funded field projects, when organizations worked directly with people from the communities they were mapping, women participants made up 48 percent.

That number dwarfs the percentage in the rest of the field, but parity (or majority) is still the ultimate aim. So in honor of International Women’s Day, Missing Maps organized about 20 feminist map-a-thons across the country, including one at the American Red Cross headquarters in downtown Washington, D.C., led by Levine along with a team of women volunteers. Price spoke as the guest of honor, and around 75 people attended: members of George Washington University’s Humanitarian Mapping Society, cartography enthusiasts, Red Cross volunteers and employees. There were women and men; new mappers and old.

I turned up with my computer and not one cartographical clue.

The project we embarked on together was commissioned by the Tanzanian Development Trust, which runs a safe house for girls in Tanzania facing the threat of genital mutilation. Its workers pick up and safely shelter girls from neighboring villages who fear they’ll be cut. When a girl calls for help, outreach workers need to know where to go pick them up, but they’re stuck in a Google Maps dead zone. Using OSM, volunteers from all over the world—including girls on the ground in Tanzania—are filling in the blanks.

Much of the area around Tanzania’s safe house isn’t recorded on Google Maps. By logging buildings and streets on OSM, volunteers can help outreach workers navigate. (OpenStreetMap)

When it comes to increasing access to health services, safety, and education—things women in many developing countries disproportionately lack—equitable cartographic representation matters. It’s the people who make the map who shape what shows up. On OMS, buildings aren’t just identified as buildings; they’re “tagged” with specifics according to mappers’ and editors’ preferences. “If two to five percent of our mappers are women, that means only a subset of that get[s] to decide what tags are important, and what tags get our attention,” said Levine.

Sports arenas? Lots of those. Strip clubs? Cities contain multitudes. Bars? More than one could possibly comprehend.

Meanwhile, childcare centers, health clinics, abortion clinics, and specialty clinics that deal with women’s health are vastly underrepresented. In 2011, the OSM community rejected an appeal to add the “childcare” tag at all. It was finally approved in 2013, and in the time since, it’s been used more than 12,000 times.

Doctors have been tagged more than 80,000 times, while healthcare facilities that specialize in abortion have been tagged only 10; gynecology, near 1,500; midwife, 233, fertility clinics, none. Only one building has been tagged as a domestic violence facility, and 15 as a gender-based violence facility. That’s not because these facilities don’t exist—it’s because the men mapping them don’t know they do, or don’t care enough to notice.

So much of the importance of mapping is about navigating the world safely. For women, especially women in less developed countries, that safety is harder to secure. “If we tag something as a public toilet, does that mean it has facilities for women? Does it mean the facilities are safe?” asked Levine. “When we’re tagging specifically, ‘This is a female toilet,’ that means somebody has gone in and said, ‘This is accessible to me.’ When women aren’t doing the tagging, we just get the toilet tag.”

“Women’s geography,” Price tells her students, is made up of more than bridges and tunnels. It’s shaped by asking things like: Where on the map do you feel safe? How would you walk from A to B in the city without having to look over your shoulder? It’s hard to map these intangibles—but not impossible.

On International Women’s Day, Missing Maps organized a map-a-thon of cartography enthusiasts, Red Cross volunteers, and map noobs; students and teachers, men and women alike. (Sarah Holder)

“Women [already] share that information or intuitively pick it up watching other women,” Price said. “Those kinds of things could be mapped. Maybe not in an OSM environment, but that happens when cartography goes into many different hands and people think of different ways of how we know space, classify space, and value space.”

That’s why Levine believes that the emphasis on recruiting women mapmakers, especially for field projects like the Tanzanian one, is above all else a practical one. Women are the ones who know the health facilities; they know what’s safe and unsafe; they know where their kids go to play; they know where to buy groceries,” she said. And we have found that by going to them directly, we get better data, and we get that data faster.

Recording more women-centric spaces doesn’t account for the many LGBTQ or non-binary spaces that go unmapped, a gap the International Women’s Day event didn’t overtly address. But elsewhere on the internet, projects like “Queering the Map” seek to identify queer spaces across the globe, preserving memories of LGBTQ awakenings, love stories, and acts of resistance. Instead of women’s health centers, the Queered Map opens a space to tag gay bars, or park benches where two women once fell in love, or the street in Oakland someone decided to change their “pronouns to they/them.” It’s a more subjective way to label space, and less institutionalized than the global OSM network. But that’s sort of the point.

Service through cartography

The concentration of women mappers in humanitarian projects is partly due to the framing of cartography as a service-driven skill, Levine said, rather than a technical one. That perception reflects the broader dynamics that alienate women from STEM fields—the idea that women should work as nurturers, not coders—but many women at the map-a-thon agreed that it was a drive to volunteer that first drew them to OSM.

Maiya Kondratieff and Grace Poillucci, freshmen at George Washington University, are roommates. Both of them unexpectedly fell into digital mapping this year after seeing GW’s Humanitarian Mapping Society advertised at the university club fair. They were joined at the Missing Maps event by fellow society member Ethan Casserino, a third-year at GW.

“It wasn’t presented as a tech-y thing; more like service work,” said Kondratieff. “And our e-board is mostly even” in terms of gender representation, she added. One of those older leaders of the group spent much of the night hurrying around, dishing out pizza and handing out stickers. Later, she stopped, leaned over Kondratieff’s shoulder, and helped her solve a bug in her map.

Rhys, a cartography professional who asked not to be identified by last name, graduated from GW in 2016 and majored in geography. A lot of her women peers, she said, found their way into cartography based on an interest in art or graphic design. As things become more technology-heavy, she’s observed a large male influx. “It’s daunting for some people,” she said.

Another big barrier to women’s involvement in OSM, besides the already vast disparities in the tech sphere, Levine said, is time. All OSM work is volunteer-based. “Women have less free time because the work we’re doing in our free time is not considered work,” said Levine. “Cleaning duties, childcare, are often not considered shared behaviors. When the women are putting the baby asleep, the man is mapping.”

As a designer with DevelopmentSeed, a data technology group that is partnering with OSM to improve its maps, Ali Felski has been interviewing dozens of OSM users across the country about how they interact with the site. Most of them, she said, are older, retired men with time on their hands. “Mapping is less community-based. It’s technically detailed, and there aren’t a lot of nice instructions,” she said, factors that she thinks might be correlated with women’s hesitance to join the field. “I think it’s just a communication problem.”

Building that communication often starts with education. According to a PayScale gender-by-major analysis conducted in 2009, 72 percent of undergraduate geography majors were men. At GW, that may be changing. While the geography major is small, it’s woman-dominated: 13 women and 10 men are in the graduate program. Price has taught generations of GW students (including Rhys, who counts her as a mentor), and leads the department with six other women, exactly matching the department’s seven men.

Organizations like YouthMappers, which has 113 chapters spread among 35 countries, are supporting students in creating their own university OSM communities. And a lot of the students who participate are women. An estimated 40 percent of the 5,000 students who take part in YouthMappers are female, and a quarter of their chapters have more than 50 percent participation, said Marcela Zeballos, a research associate and 2009 graduate of GW. The group also champions women’s empowerment initiatives like Let Girls Map, which runs from International Women’s Day in March to International Day of the Girl in October.

I didn’t get to map much at the event, but that night I kicked off the Let Girls Map season snuggled in bed, tagging buildings and drawing roads. I learned to curve paths and square edges, hypnotized by the seemingly endless satellite footage of Starbucks-free woods.

The gaps in my local geographical knowledge, though, were unsurprisingly vast: I didn’t know if the buildings I was outlining were bathrooms or houses or restaurants, and couldn’t really discern a highway from a path from a driveway. And when my “unknown line” is a Tanzanian woman’s escape route, the stakes are high. That’s why HOT projects also depend on community members, some equipped with old-fashioned pens and paper, to hone in on the details.

But map-a-thons like this get people engaged, and OSM-literate. They begin to build the sense of community that DevelopmentSeed’s Felski wished OSM didn’t lack. At an event like this, led and attended by women in the cartography field (or who may soon enter it), it’s easy to forget how few there really are.

Down the table, the undergraduates Kondratieff and Casserino chatted, eyes trained at the rural Tanzanian landscape unfolding on their laptop screens. “You should minor in GIS,” Casserino urged.

“Maybe I will,” she replied.

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