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A Retrospective on Geography Awareness Week 2017: By Gary E. Knell, President and CEO, National Geographic Society

In celebration of Geography Awareness Week 2017, National Geographic hosted a Mapathon to harness the power of geography and technology to safeguard our planet’s treasured wildlife and wild places.


Last week, I had the chance to stop by an amazing Mapathon held on the National Geographic campus in celebration of Geography Awareness Week. The National Geographic Society started Geography Awareness Week in 1987 to promote the importance of geography education in creating global citizens.

Today, we continue to spread the word about the importance of geography and mapping in everyone’s lives. And what better way to do it than to get people to do some mapping themselves? Hosted in partnership with the American Red Cross and The George Washington University, the Mapathon contributed mapping data to OpenStreetMap for areas in Angola where the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project works.

OpenStreetMap is a GIS database and an online map, built by a community of mappers that contribute and maintain geographic data about roads, trails, towns, buildings and dozens of other features around the world. OpenStreetMap covers the entire globe, but the Mapathon focused on building data on the Okavango River Basin and surrounding areas in Angola, which is particularly important to National Geographic.

The greater Okavango River Basin is the largest freshwater wetland in southern Africa, and the main source of water for more than a million people. Its headwaters are located in the remote Angolan highlands. From pods of hippos, to prides of lions, to predatory 23-foot-long crocodiles, the Okavango River Basin teems with life and biodiversity, helping support the world’s largest elephant population and creating a sacred reserve of animal species and plant life that, in many cases, can’t be found anywhere else on earth.

This entire ecosystem is extremely fragile. Its health and very existence depend on rivers that originate in Angola, then converge and flow through Namibia into Botswana, making its stewardship complicated and its future uncertain. In response to growing environmental threats, the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project — a collaboration between local African researchers and experts, and international colleagues and scientists — set out to explore and study this magnificent landscape.

Over the past few years, working with local governments, the team has traveled throughout the massive river basin to record its extraordinary biodiversity and to collect information on the health of its water systems.

The knowledge the team has gathered is helping inform decision-makers on how best to protect this precious and vital ecosystem.

The new data from this week’s Mapathon will help the Okavango Wilderness Project team as they continue to explore the river basin’s headwaters in Angola.

The fun, energetic and highly interactive evening brought together more than 170 people, including the U.S. Department of State Geographer Dr. Lee Schwartz and National Geographic Society Geographer Alex Tait. Nearly half the participants were students from The George Washington University. Others included staff and friends from the American Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA).

And talk about impact: Together, this group mapped nearly 5,000 buildings and 3,400 kilometers of road. The never-before-recorded data will inform the Okavango Wilderness Project’s future expeditions and, ultimately, its efforts to help protect the Okavango River Basin for all who call it home.

I can’t think of a better example of harnessing the power of geography and technology to safeguard our planet’s treasured wildlife and wild places to ensure a healthy and more sustainable future for Angola, for Africa and for generations to come.

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