Geographers Developing Map for Humanity


The U.S. Department of State is taking an interest in John Kostelnick’s work.

The associate professor of geography and his team at Illinois State University are working to improve map symbols that can be used by humanitarian relief organizations worldwide to communicate critical information during natural disasters and human conflicts.

For the first phase of the project, they’re conducting a survey to identify mapping challenges faced by relief organizations. The team is gaining international support, with input from organizations such as the U.S. Department of State, United Nations offices, USAID and the International Red Cross. “We were pleased to see how many national and international organizations are responding to the initial survey,” he said.

Ultimately, the work will develop practical solutions, with a best practices guide. “There is so much geographic information available today from satellites, social media and many other sources,” he said. “However, we need better ways to visualize all this information on maps for effective crisis response activities. It is vital for those who respond to crisis situations to have a clear idea of what they are facing.”

The Symbol of Danger

Kostelnick began work on humanitarian mapping projects in graduate school when he worked with the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining to develop map symbols to symbolize landmine clearance activities.

John Kostelnick

John Kostelnick

“Our group supported those who created the maps to remove the landmines,” he said, noting they needed to look across cultures to create a standardized set of map symbols. “Not every culture sees red as danger. We had to come up with symbols that would work for everyone.”

The team developed symbols that mirrored the signs used around many mined areas.  “The symbols have to be versatile in order to be effective. This literally can be a life or death situation.”

Kostelnick hopes that his current project will inspire students to enter the field of crisis mapping just as the demining project left an imprint on him. One student recently completed an internship in humanitarian mapping for Catholic Relief Services in Baltimore.

Kostelnick’s other recent work has dealt with emergency management mapping in Illinois, where  another prohect team developed a web mapping system  to assist the Illinois Emergency Management Agency (IEMA) and local emergency management agencies with disaster response mapping.

The web mapping system was developed for disasters such as the recent devastating tornado in Washington, Ill. Mobile mapping systems like the one Kostelnick helped design for IEMA will be key to the new wave of humanitarian mapping.

“Getting help to people in times of disaster or crisis is the ultimate goal,” he said, “whether that’s responding to tornados in our local communities, or an earthquake on the other side of the world.”


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