Caribbean youth harness power of geo-mapping

By Evelyn Rupert and Kathy McClure

January 17, 2018

Bank, nail salon, veterinary clinic, police station, hardware store, soup kitchen: A team of young people walk through the streets of Soufrière, Saint Lucia, collecting information on the town’s landmarks and building up a map of their community.

Using an app on their phones, these asset mappers are gathering data on “assets” in Soufrière – community centers, businesses, public spaces, organizations, even locations with free Wi-Fi – that are resources for the town. The group was introduced to asset mapping through the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Community, Family and Youth Resilience program, which is implemented by Creative Associates International.

Nehia, 17, an asset mapper from Soufrière, Saint Lucia. Photos by Kathy McClure.

They will upload the data they collect onto Open Street Map – an open, crowd-sourced mapping platform. Where large mapping services like Google and Bing might have just a fraction of the full picture of this small town, these youth can create a map of their own communities from the ground level.

Asset mapper Nehia, 17, says she signed up to keep her busy and learn something new as she searches for a job after finishing high school. As a group supervisor, Nehia’s participation in the mapping gave her a unique chance to practice leadership skills and teamwork to get the job done.

And now that the mapping is complete, Nehia has a much fuller picture of the potential employers and resources that could help connect her to a job.

“I want to see more youth employed in Soufrière, and for myself I plan to use the information that I was able to collect to start in my own job search,” she says. “Most of us are finished school and starting to look for jobs or opportunities for training, and this will help a lot.”

Using data to prevent crime and violence

Youth collect info about assets in their communities using an app called Vespucci and Open Street Map.

Operating in 15 target communities across Saint Lucia, Saint Kitts and Nevis and Guyana, the Community, Family and Youth Resilience program works to prevent crime and violence by supporting family networks, communities, service providers and government agencies to implement successful approaches to reduce crime and violence and increase opportunities for highly vulnerable youth.

Mapping these communities not only highlights existing positive resources, but also raises awareness about what is lacking, like vital social services, law enforcement or employment opportunities. They also reveal areas where crime and violence crop up. And as asset mappers collect data about where crime and violence primarily occur, the maps will pinpoint “hotspot” locations that can be prioritized by the community and program.

Program Chief of Party Debra Wahlberg says this information is a valuable resource that provides baseline data and a guide to the communities that can inform future interventions to promote security.

“Communities will be able to use the maps to design and implement activities to build on the positive assets within the community and also implement activities to address the hotspot locations,” Wahlberg says. “This will have a positive impact on reducing levels of crime and violence, making it safer for the entire community.”

For example, the asset mappers’ observations and data will feed into project-established Community Enhancement Committees, which will work at a local level to make recommendations and implement violence prevention initiatives. The information will help these committees prioritize problem areas and inform their decisions.

The mappers’ information is already producing some valuable insights. Nehia says that as her group began looking more closely at their town, she noticed some areas that could be improved, such as better street lighting and cleaning stretches of beachfront littered with trash.

Open Street Map of Castries, Saint Lucia.

“I learned a lot about some of the things the community needs and some of the things they don’t have,” Nehia says. “I can now with the mappers present to [the Community Enhancement Committees] some of the issues, some of the things that our community needs and some of the things that they can do to enhance the community, especially for the young people and older folks.”

Turning to youth such as Nehia to chart out these communities is a way to get the younger generation involved in finding solutions to the problems their communities face.

“Having youth within the community do the mapping is a marvelous way to engage younger citizens to appreciate that this is ‘their home’ also,” Wahlberg says. “They have a role to play in keeping their community safe by engaging with other community members and contributing toward solutions to reduce crime and violence.”

Ted Lawrence, USAID’s General Development Office Director, says involving youth in asset mapping early on in the program underscores the important role they have to play in achieving positive change.

“Young people continue to be the driving force for USAID’s initiatives,” he says. “Efforts like this highlight the vast potential of youth to affect change, and, improve society at large. We look forward to partnering with Caribbean youth to create safe communities.”

New skills and new perspective

Creative’s Cate Johnson with a group of youth asset mappers.

While the finished maps bring a wealth of information to the program, the asset mappers themselves, and communities at large, also benefit from the process of collecting data and building more complete information about the assets around them.

Cate Johnson, Technology Associate in Creative’s Development Lab, traveled to Saint Lucia to take part in asset mapping training of youth there. She says the activity not only introduces youth to a new technical skill, but builds leadership and communication and gets them thinking in new ways.

“Mapping viscerally engages youth – it brings any subject matter to the familiar context of ‘home,’” she says. “Youth begin to think spatially about what assets exist in their community, and to define what an asset is for themselves.”

Johnson says that during the training, the participants were amazed that they had the ability to make changes to an online map that would be available for anyone to see. Using a crowd-sourced platform, she says, can empower neighbors to share information and improve a community’s knowledge of itself.

“Asset mapping can actually allow you to give that storytelling power back to the communities,” she says. “They get to share the information. That’s one of the big reasons that we did this, to put that power into the hands of youth.”

With the work of the youth asset mappers, the story of Soufrière is now more complete.

Nehia alone has made dozens of tweaks to her town’s map, pinpointing and updating information for churches, medical offices, hiking trails and more.

She says the mapping will help her and the rest of her community locate and learn about their surroundings and generally empower fellow mappers with new knowledge.

“I think that this could take them really far if they take it seriously, they never know what they could do,” she concluded. “It will be very beneficial for the community, and it was really beneficial for me.”

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