Transitioning from Online Mapathons to In-person: Experiences of Mapathon Organizers

30 November 2021

Between summer and mid-Fall, several countries have experienced life almost as we knew it before the pandemic, including live events taking place again with the previous restrictions lifted. A few of us have taken the opportunity to switch from online to in-person mapathons. This change brings with it expected benefits, as well as unforeseen challenges. We’ve asked a few members of our community to share these experiences. We hope their stories will help you plan your next in-person event and give you some inspiration as we continue to wait until we can all map in person together.

Sebastian Blum, Germany

Sebastian (left) helps mapathon participant

Who are you? I am supporting the Events and Public Education team at the MSF Office in Berlin since July 2019. There I also came in contact with OSM and Missing Maps for the first time. Since then I organize and moderate Mapathons for the German-speaking sections.

How was it to go back to an in-person event? After a year full of online events, above all , I felt excited and relieved. The many experiences we gained in the online mapathons have definitely paid off. The get-together was cordial. We were able to conduct the event routinely and largely without problems. Despite appropriate safety precautions such as tests and proof of vaccination, it felt like a pre-pandemic event.

What concerns did you face when planning the mapathon? The event had to take place within the current infection control measures. Since we already had extensive possibilities and eased restrictions at the time, these were limited in our case to the control of vaccination and test certificates as well as possibilities for tracking contacts, which could be ensured via the various apps. The associated communication was complex since the prevention of infections is, of course, central to the long-term existence of in-person events. I also wondered what the interaction between strangers would be like after the greatest possible isolation. However, the airy and spacious event room with access to the terrace, the good weather and the generally good mood of the participants facilitated a pleasant exchange.

What were the advantages you perceived as compared to online mapathons you recently organized? The direct exchange! Even though mapping in break-out rooms and split screens has its advantages, direct contact with participants is much more fun and problems can be discussed individually. Of course, it was especially nice that our colleague was able to take pictures of the event as a souvenir and for further use.

Advice for mapathon organizers in these uncertain times? Greatest possible care - location, infection control, spontaneity. The organization of events has always been dynamic, so the current challenges can be integrated into the planning of events - even if they make the process more cumbersome. Nevertheless, I found it helpful to keep the perspective of experiencing another mapathon in-person soon.

Jana Bauerova, Czech Republic

Who are you? I am a Missing Maps Community Engagement & Communication Coordinator for Médecins Sans Frontières, based in Prague. I have mapped in the OpenStreetMap since November 2019 and been organizing mapathons since January 2020. I animate a network of Missing Maps champions who organize mapathons in support of MSF operations and help them in organizing several dozens of mapathons in 20+ countries every year.

How was it to go back to an in-person event? The members of the core team of the Missing Maps Czech community, who have kept the mapathons going over a year online, were visibly glad to meet face-to-face in August. New mappers equally enjoyed it. Some of the trainers did not hesitate to undertake a few-hour train ride from cities of Brno and Olomouc! It was the first time we saw each other in person, because before the pandemic, we used to hold mapathons in our towns. Then we started doing jointly online mapathons about once a month and saw each other only in small rectangles on zoom. When we met at last, we hugged each other like old friends. Besides, the mappers seemed to assimilate the new skills more quickly and fully in person; the quality of mapping was very good. Finally, it is part of the Czech culture and had been a habit to continue discussing over a beer. We did continue to socialize once or twice after an online event but doing it in person is much more enjoyable and relaxing, since we have had a lot of screen time lately.

What concerns did you face when planning the mapathon? First of all, we had to closely follow the government rules and requirements for events for over 20 attendees. Secondly, I had to make sure that it was in line with our MSF office stand towards organizing in-person events at that time and that we minimized the risk of spreading any infection. These requirements had to be communicated to the attendees in a clear and timely manner. Instructions were detailed on the Facebook event as well as in an email sent 2 days before the event. Then there was a less tangible concern that people might be shy after such a long time functioning in the safety and comfort of their homes. Luckily, we were enough trainers in the room, so we could sit next to anyone who had a question and sort out the way to proceed. The participants seemed to prefer that to raising a hand and asking in front of everybody in the group. Besides, when I came to the reception of the place where I had reserved the rooms to pick up the keys, it turned out that one of the rooms confirmed previously by email would not be available. We had just enough time to agree on using another room and prepare the space.

What were the advantages as compared to online mapathons you recently organized? We could finally take photos of people mapping and a group picture without a zoom gallery view! At our first event, we did not ask people to get up from their place at the banks and come close, so everyone could keep a comfortable distance from others, at the second, we took one with respirators. The training did not seem long the way it sometimes does during an online event, when it follows the welcome words and intro presentation; I found it super engaging. The iD trainer did a little quiz on OSM :). Of course, it was also nice to have refreshing drinks and pizza during the mapathon. Finally, the socializing part after is important not only for connecting and exchanging with the participants and trainers. In my experience, those moments are an opportunity for example to collect actionable feedback, build consensus over the next mapathon, or explore preliminary availability of trainers.

Advice for mapathon organizers in these uncertain times? Double-check everything, when you go back to the physical events – the rooms reserved, the time of the delivery of refreshments, the reception of the important info by the participants registered last-minute, that your colleagues who plan to join do not assume it will be online, as before… It’s good to check these a day before the mapathon or, latest, the morning of the event. You should test the sound and screen the week before, if you plan to have any speaker or participants connecting online, as well as the settings of the online meeting (permissions for presenting, enabling chat, videos on/off etc.). Also, walk the talk when it comes to the pandemic situation, including airing the room, spacing out the seating, and sanitary measures – even if face masks are not required, acknowledging that you respect and welcome the individual decision to keep them on to protect others and themselves. The last point is not to go back to how it was before, but rather, build on how the mapathons have transformed in the last year and a half. In August, I received a few enquiries from the regulars not being able to come in person if they can join online. To keep it inclusive and enable them to contribute with what we could count on as quality mapping and validation, I invited them to join the Teams meeting, created originally for our expat guest speaker. It was a useful experience to do a ‘light hybrid’, before organizing a fully hybrid event as a zoom meeting in October.

Sorensa Eschbach, France

Who are you? I am a Missing Maps project assistant, since September 2021. I am in a civic service contract with the association CartONG, based in Chambery, Savoie (France). Before that, I graduated in physical geography and then I did my first year of master in disaster and natural risk management. Thanks to this course, I was introduced to OSM. With my civic service partner and the support of the other members of the staff, we organize online and presential mapathons in France.

How was it to do an in-person event? Since the beginning of the pandemic, CartONG has adapted by offering online sessions twice a week, a contribution session on Monday and a validation session on Thursday. Since September 2021, we have been organizing a French Tour of mapathons. The idea is to go to a different city in France each month and do a live mapathon. We went to Grenoble and Lyon. Not having participated in any face-to-face mapathon in the past, this format is pleasant and interesting to do compared to the online format.

What were the advantages as compared to online mapathons you recently organized? The advantages are multiple. First of all, the fact of seeing people in real life, interactions are easier and often richer. Concerning the presentation and explanation of how to map, it is also more pleasant for both the organizers and the participants. It is also easier to determine if the person has understood our explanations or not. The other advantage is the fact of meeting new people. The face-to-face events attract a wider audience while the online events tend to attract regulars. It’s also nice to see the same people every week, but meeting new people is always fun. After the workshop, we offer a small snack and drinks, which allows us to get together and talk about other topics and learn more about the people present.

Even if some last-minute, unforeseen events, like train delays, or Internet connection problems etc. happen, it’s part of the game and adds some spice to the day!

Advice for mapathon organizers in these uncertain times? As I don’t have much experience in this field, my advice is quite basic. Plan in advance the necessary material (mouse, flyers, goodies, charger…). Also plan enough time to get to the venue if it is far from where you work. It is important to have a good communication with the partner(s) who co-organize the mapathon (location, time, number of participants, phone numbers in case of emergency). Do not forget the presentation you want to give at the time of the mapathon, and the knowledge of the area to be mapped, in case the participants have questions. Finally, this is not always the easiest thing to do, but try to put the different participants at ease by explaining the course of the evening. Don’t forget to send them a summary email with the essential information a few days before.

Eliot Sotty, Germany

Who are you? I am a Missing Maps’ Project Assistant for CartONG, an NGO specialized in information management, cartography and mobile data collection for the humanitarian and development sector. I joined CartONG and the OSM team 4 months ago. I’m in charge of the facilitation of mapathons and I work on Missing Maps communication with other Missing Maps members.

How was it to go back to an in-person event? In September, we started a Tour of France of mapathons to meet our volunteers in person and not just through a screen. The goal is to organize a public mapathon every month in a different city. We did two in-person mapathons so far. While I hosted online mapathons since July, I’ve never done in-person mapathons. It was a first time and a real pleasure to be able to see and discuss with people properly. Looking for partners in the city, volunteers and places to host the mapathon was way more exciting than opening a laptop and sharing screens!

What concerns did you face when planning the mapathon? We faced two main concerns when we started the Tour of France of mapathons. The first one was to remobilize our local networks all around France. We need a logistical support to find a place, communicate, set up and tidy the room for the mapathon, buying groceries, etc. After one year of online mapathons, we weren’t sure our former volunteers would still be involved. Finally, volunteers were present to help us to organize this Tour and it was a success in the two first cities where we did those mapathons. The second main concern was obviously the health pass and the sanitary conditions in France. There were few questions about the responsibilities of asking the health pass, if it was compulsory or not regarding the current legislation, all the concerns about the data protection of attendees, etc. Finally, asking the health pass wasn’t a big issue. People were understanding and spontaneously put their mask on and used sanitizer.

What were the advantages you perceived as compared to online mapathons you recently organized? Being able to see attendees in person made the socialization way easier. You can see their reactions; if there are fascinated or bored; if they need help but are not comfortable asking; you can guess their smile under the face mask. All those things are more obvious in face-to-face than through a screen. The interaction is also more lively. People can interrupt you more easily to ask questions. Debates can come out in-person while it’s usually less understandable online. Usually, we bring drinks and food to have a little time of discussion and sharing after the mapathon. We can learn more about attendees and talk about other topics. In the last mapathon, a colleague did a remote interview from Tajikistan to present the project of the mapathon. We faced issues to set up this interview. She couldn’t see the room and all the attendees and the sound was correct but not great. It was a nice interview, when we went back to the explanations for attendees it seemed easier and more natural though.

Advice for mapathon organizers in these uncertain times? I think keeping a time after the mapathon to discuss is a good idea. It’s an opportunity to make contact, friends and to bring people more regularly to mapathons. It’s also not just to talk about mapathons and cartography but to meet new people. Obviously, you need to clean and tidy the room after. We usually ask for the help of one of our long-term volunteers who is glad to help us. Coming early is also important to be sure everything is working well, to set up the room, to have the time to get ready, etc. Mapathons are a nice activity and people see it like that. In my experience, attendees are always lovely and no one will be upset if something goes wrong.

by Jana Bauerová