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Kostelnick develops new mapping resource to help humanitarian organizations

map of area with a malaria outbreak, with different size circles designating how intense the outbreak

A sample of a map from the Humanitarian Symbology Scorecard, offering examples of strong uses of color and symbols.

In 2014, the United Nations estimated more than 78 million people in 22 countries required aid from humanitarian crises, the largest number since World War II. From natural disasters and epidemics, to those fleeing warfare and human trafficking, the UN expects the number of people in peril to rise to 128.6 million people in 33 countries in 2017.

Battling to help these people in need are humanitarian relief organizations across the globe, who need to work quickly in areas impacted by crisis. Illinois State University’s John Kostelnick led a team to create new resources to help these organizations develop effective maps for crisis response.

“With all of the new technology currently available, it’s much easier for organizations like the International Red Cross and Red Crescent to create maps quickly using geographic data collected by mobile phones or drones, for example,” said Kostelnick, an associate professor of geography, “but not everyone is trained in cartography (the study of map making) or Geographic Information Systems, which can create challenges for presenting this information on maps most effectively.”

Kostelnick and his team created the Humanitarian Symbology Scorecard, a free, online assessment tool which enables organizations to evaluate the maps they are creating. Based on a survey with 10 key questions, organizations can easily understand if their maps are conveying information that conforms to “best practices” in cartography. Questions cover everything from the use of symbols to how the map displays simple or complex information depending on the intended audience.

image of John Kostelnick

John Kostelnick

Each question includes an explanation of how to evaluate a map, examples of effective maps, and recommended websites or other resources to help organizations improve their maps when needed. “We hope the Humanitarian Symbology Scorecard can become a valuable resource for those involved with crisis mapping,” said Kostelnick, who serves as director for GEOMAP, a University institute that specializes in Geographic Information Science (GIScience) research and technology. “Maps are vital during times of crisis for assisting in the transportation of relief supplies to helping people evacuate from impacted regions. There are a lot of unique challenges to mapping a crisis, and we hope that we can help crisis mappers to design maps that ultimately can help people in need.”

Kostelnick developed the scorecard over the past several years, working with three ISU students, Megan Maher, Ashley Brehmer, and Brooke Schumacher. All three graduated, and Maher remains at Illinois State as the public outreach coordinator for the Department of Geography, Geology, and the Environment, and also as the assistant director for GEOMAP.

“Humanitarian work is extremely important, so it was nice as a student to work on a project that has the potential to help solve real world problems,” said Maher. “The Humanitarian Symbology Scorecard has the potential to be a powerful tool for humanitarian organizations because maps are such an essential tool in relief efforts, and could potentially improve the response time and efficiency.”

Humanitarian relief mapping has long been a passion for Kostelnick. In a previous project, he coordinated an international survey, with input from organizations such as the U.S. Department of State, United Nations offices, USAID, and the International Red Cross, to identify key issues related to map symbology in crisis mapping activities. Read more about the process of creating the survey.

Overall, Kostelnick hopes these resources and project results can make efforts easier for aid workers and volunteers. “In a lot of non-profit organizations, people can be assigned many different hats. Resources like the Humanitarian Symbology Scorecard are designed to help those who have limited experience in mapping, as well as experts in the field who want to reevaluate their maps.”

Find more information, including a video tutorial, on the project website.

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