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Community mapping for resilience

Following the 2030 Agenda’s ambition to leave no one and no place behind, and reach those furthest behind first, one of UKRI GCRF URBE Latam’s key outcomes is to empower marginalised communities by co-creating an evidence base for disaster risk reduction and equitable resilience building in their neighbourhood. Equitable resilience is enhanced if interventions account for differentials of social vulnerability, of (access to) power, knowledge, and resources (Matin, Forrester and Ensor 2018). Data generation for equitable resilience thus requires critical awareness of factors mediating these differentials, and specifically the relation between the communities’ socio-spatial characteristics and the neighbourhoods’ environmental, social, spatial and institutional dynamics.

URBE Latam thus adopts an approach of co-creative thematic investigation into factors of vulnerability and potentialities in all its work packages, including the creation of the base maps in Work Package 1. The project researchers and communities are thus working to co-create maps with a dual purpose, which is to is to represent the communities’ worldviews, while creating a geo-spatial evidence base to enhance conventional risk and resilience-related policy making. With COVID-19 exacerbating existing inequalities and more severely affecting our partner communities, the creation of these maps has increased in urgency as they will be used to identify the locations of the most vulnerable residents and their needs, and social infrastructure in the neighbourhoods.

Mapping to start a dialogue

Over the last couple of months, we held mapping marathons (so-called mapathons) to map both neighbourhoods (Morro do Preventório / Niterói; El Pacífico / Medellín) on OpenStreetMap (OSM), which is the crowdsourced online editable map (also called “the Wikipedia of maps”). While the original project plan was for the researchers to map with the residents in both areas, COVID-19-related international and national travel restrictions meant that the mapathons were entirely virtual. The direct presence which is important for any trans-disciplinary research project in community resilience was not possible at this time. However, the virtual nature of the mapathons did not stop, only transform, the dialogue. It brought the residents of Morro do Preventório and El Pacífico together as it allowed them to connect and map each other’s neighbourhoods.

Community mapping in Morro do Preventorio, Brazil (Picture: Marcos Rodrigo)

During the mapathons, Professor João Porto de Albuquerque provided an overview of crowdsourced humanitarian mapping on OSM. Humanitarian mapping has its origins in the global volunteer OSM community’s effort to update the country’s map in response to humanitarian emergency aid organisations’ information needs in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. It has now evolved into initiatives and organised crowdsourced mapping projects that put vulnerable communities on the map, both in preparation and in response to disasters. Using the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team’s (HOT) Tasking Manager platform, Philipp Ulbrich then introduced the participants from both communities and project partner organisations into online mapping with OSM. In the two introductory mapping sessions a total of about 80 people joined hands virtually to create the maps of Morro do Preventório and El Pacífico.

Immediate impacts and first new insights

The communities’ involvement in mapping continues beyond the initial mapathons. Driven by the Preventório community bank (Brazilian Portuguese) and its Solidarity Committee (English and Brazilian Portuguese) community mapping is being integrated into a community leadership course. Community members have also indicated that they are interested in further developing a local version of OSM tags (feature names) and practices to reflect neighbourhood-specific conceptualisations and categorisations. This is, for example, the case for Preventório with the category name for local convenience stores in Brazilian Portuguese. The call for localised mapping practices also emerged during discussions regarding the shape of structures in the two self-built neighbourhoods, which, like many other so-called “informal” settlements, are more often than not non-rectangular and overlapping – unlike the “standard” building shape in OSM, which is either rectangular or round, and non-overlapping. A key concern for the communities was also to develop a localised map with risk factors, such as areas with a tendency of solid waste accumulation. Another discussion which emerged as a result of the community-driven mapping referred to the tension between the street nomenclature used by the community and that of the official land registry (cadastre) and municipal planning office.

Co-creatively preparing the groundwork for equitable resilience and reducing structural, social (in)-justice driven vulnerability

In this sense, mapping so-called informal settlements with communities simultaneously fulfils various implicit and direct project objectives. It firstly generates visibility as many marginalised settlements are not found on official or publicly available maps even though they can be seen in satellite imagery, as was the case for Morro do Preventório. Secondly, in addition to visibilisation, participatory mapping is used to draw on community volunteers for local knowledge. This is the case of participatory mapping projects for COVID-19 contingency planning in both neighbourhoods. Here volunteers with local knowledge identify various types of infrastructure relevant for local pandemic response. Local knowledge is also particularly important in self-constructed neighbourhoods as they tend to have differential morphologies, densities (e.g. number of households per dwelling) and topological characteristics which reinforce so-called neighbourhood effects (Lilford et al. 2017). These differentials in turn mediate urban service needs. Empowerment is the third objective. In addition to gaining mapping skills to continue updating the map and contributing to knowledge about the neighbourhood – as is the case in both project communities –, community volunteers and leaders use the data they generated for advocacy and mobilisation regarding specific themes affecting their neighbourhood. Community leaders in Morro do Preventório also indicated that they intend to create geospatial data to draw attention to the inequalities in the community’s access to water and sanitation infrastructure. The fourth, and explicit project objective is the creation of dialogue and mutual conscientisation. Here the aim is to support the community in developing their own definition of vulnerability and potentialities.

The maps of Morro do Preventório and El Pacífico in 2019 and in September 2020 (Source: OSM Analytics)

With evidence from the community bank in Preventório and the community risk reduction and management committee in El Pacífico, this could be based on community-identified intersections between social and spatial factors of vulnerability and resilience. How to sustainably link this type of evidence into conventional risk models is the main focus of URBE Latam. We very much look forward to continuing our work and dialogues with both communities who both face extraordinary challenges during the pandemic. It has therefore been inspiring to witness the communities’ response and degree of self-organisation in the face of the multiple and significant inequalities.

Special thanks to Ralph Aytoun for training the project team on the Java OpenStreetMap platform, and to the global HOT community (specifically to Ralph Aytoun and Sam Colchester) for validating the technical accuracy of the maps that were created during the mapathons, as well as for the technical advice received during the setup of the mapping project on the HOT Tasking Manager.

Blog post written September 2020: Philipp Ulbrich is a Research Assistant on the project.


Lilford, Richard J, Oyinlola Oyebode, David Satterthwaite, G J Melendez-Torres, Yen-Fu Chen, Blessing Mberu, and Samuel I Watson et al. 2017. "Improving The Health And Welfare Of People Who Live In Slums". The Lancet 389 (10068): 559-570. doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(16)31848-7.

Matin, Nilufar, John Forrester, and Jonathan Ensor. 2018. "What Is Equitable Resilience?". World Development 109: 197-205. doi:10.1016/j.worlddev.2018.04.020.