How Innovative Student Research Projects Help Map the World

Mapillary is a great tool for student mapping projects since the platform allows anyone, anywhere, to map what is important to them. Whether traveling over rugged mountain terrain or through the jungle, anywhere you can bring a camera, you can map with Mapillary.

Remote locations are also some of the most undermapped, so when researchers take students into the field, they have a unique opportunity to put those places on the map. The two projects we will look at today took place in different parts of the world, Kyrgyzstan and Mexico, but what they had in common was a group of students looking to make a difference in the world.

The world around us is changing rapidly, and learning how to keep up with it is becoming an important part of many educational programs. Since Mapillary allows anyone, anywhere to map what is important or interesting to them, it is a great tool for academic projects at many different levels.

Kyrgyzstan by horseback

Between 1868 and 1970, the explorer and botanist Baron Osten Sacken published a map featuring the results of his one-year, 650-km journey to explore and observe new landscapes in what is now known as Kyrgyzstan. Today, many of the rural areas are still unmapped, and what maps do exist are lacking detailed information. Last year, the first OS-Tienshanica expedition, a collaboration between the World Biodiversity Association, Geograficamente, and the University of Padova, decided to change this.

The first OS-Tienshanica expedition consisted of two researchers studying biodiversity and mapping in central Asia—Rachele Amerini, geographer, and Roberto Battiston, naturalist, from the World Biodiversity Association. Rachele and Roberto set out to retrace and remap the steps of Baron Osten Sacken using new technology and a modern perspective to complete his field research on the natural landscapes of the Tien-Shan mountains.

The OS-Tienshanica expedition and map The OS-Tienshanica expedition is working to remap the route (highlighted in red) Baron Osten Sacken took on his journey to map the area in central Asia now known as Kyrgyzstan.

After the first expedition, the decision was made to turn this exciting adventure into a workshop for students. After successfully applying for GoPro cameras from the Mapillary camera grant program, a group of ten students, specialists, and science lovers set out to collect imagery along the rugged terrain.

Mapping by car and horseback The plan was to primarily map by horseback using helmet mounts, but due to bad weather conditions, the team also captured imagery by car.

The students on the expedition were taught how to collect zoological samples and map data as well as how to evaluate problems and plan explorative research—all things that are helping to train them as the next generation of field researchers. As remote mapping and lab-based work become more common, field-based research is becoming more rare and important to promote.

Around 40,000 images were uploaded to the Mapillary platform that will be used to add data to OpenStreetMap from villages in Kyrgyzstan and to carry out remote mapping workshops at schools. Using the GoPros and mobile phones, images were collected by car, on horseback and on foot to catch wider scenes through the villages.

To complete the environmental exploration started by Osten Sacken, more than 20 botanical specimens and around 100 animal species were collected or recorded. These specimens and records ranged from vertebrate tracks like the elusive Eurasian lynx to the small invertebrates that compose the living-net of biodiversity. Many of these species have never been previously recorded from this area and some may be completely new species altogether. The team is currently analyzing these samples and hope to publish the results in the coming years.

The third leg of the OS-Tienshanica expedition is currently being planned for next year. This time, Rachele and Roberto hope to include even more specialists to gain a more comprehensive look at the area. Their goal is to reach the unexplored area between Kyrgyzstan and China, traveling through the Taklamakan Desert (also known as the “Sea of Death”) and the city of Kashgar.

Community mapping in Mexico

At Aalto University in Finland, a group of Master’s students was planning to map a different part of the world as a part of their Sustainable Global Technologies course. With backgrounds in various disciplines such as fashion design and landscape architecture, mapping was new to the majority of them.

Beginning in 2012, the multidisciplinary project Aalto Lab Mexico was designed to improve the quality of life for indigenous communities, while at the same time promoting environmental sustainability. For the indigenous Mayan community in Ejido El 20 de Noviembre, working with Aalto Lab Mexico was an opportunity to promote itself as a tourist destination—something that would bring much-needed income for basic necessities like clean water and healthcare.

Sustainable community tourism had been identified as a potential source of income for the El 20 village due to its close proximity to the archaeological site of Calakamul and exceptional local handicrafts. This area of Mexico is famous for its embroidery and woodworking—something residents take a great amount of pride in. They are also well known for a special type of honey from an endangered stingless bee that is so rare only one kilogram can be produced each year.

Mayan handicrafts from the village of Ejido El 20 de Noviembre The indigenous Mayan community in Ejido El 20 de Noviembre is home to various artisans who would like to open their shops to tourism. (Photos: Raffaella Carluccio)

One thing holding El 20 back from successfully bringing in tourism has been the lack of a comprehensive map of the village, so this is what the students set out to change. The group from Aalto Lab had printed maps of the area, but these were not in scale and they could not be sure how accurate or up to date they were. One of the students from Aalto University, Blinera Meta Shala, knew of Mapillary through her work on the board of directors at Open Knowledge Finland and thought it could be a strong resource for collecting map data in El 20.

When mapping indigenous communities, working with local people is key to ensure preservation rather than exploitation. The students worked closely with a local tourism agency Visit Calakmul, which is part of Pro-Natura—an organization dedicated to sustainability-driven poverty alleviation. Community walks were organized so members of Ejido El 20 de Noviembre showed exactly what they did and did not want tourists to know about. Interviews were also conducted with workshop owners to determine whether participating in the village map would be beneficial to their businesses.

With all of this information in mind, the students collected street-level imagery of the village with Mapillary.

“In practice that meant we walked every single street, pathway, bridge, and canal to compile a complete picture of the area, now available online for free.” - Aalto Lab Mexico Final Report, 2019

The street-level imagery of El 20 on Mapillary complements derived data on OpenStreetMap, creating a complete picture of the village. The material from this project will be used to create promotional material for tourism.

Map of Ejido El 20 de Noviembre in Mexico One of the finished products of this student-led project is a comprehensive tourist map of the Mayan indigenous community of Ejido El 20 de Noviembre. (Photos: Raffaella Carluccio)


Both of these projects highlight innovative uses of Mapillary for student research projects. Whether it is mapping accessibility issues, assessing damage after earthquakes, or reporting road safety hazards, Mapillary is the perfect tool to add a visual element to academic work at any level.

/Lindsey, Press Officer

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