Sociology Grad Student Changing World by Mapping It

By: Graduate Studies on
 Nicholas Alt
UCF graduate student Nicholas Altizer shows children in Belize a drone that was used to
help locate and identify marine debris that was accumulating onshore.

Working from a laptop at his home, UCF graduate student Nicholas Altizer is able to help people around the world determine where best to plant food or harvest fish, which roads in their towns are likely to flood in the rainy season and where insecticide can safely be sprayed to protect populations from malaria.

He is able to do this through his internship with YouthMappers, a humanitarian organization that uses technology, young people, open-source mapping and idealism to help solve problems in impoverished areas.

With chapters at universities across the globe that work together using laptops and technology like Skype and Geographic Information Systems, volunteers are able to identify potential health or humanitarian issues in impoverished areas and seek solutions from technology-savvy students.

Altizer, who received his undergraduate degree in anthropology from UCF, is studying for his master’s in sociology under Assistant Professor Timothy L. Hawthorne.

Hawthorne, who was hired in 2015 as part of the College of Sciences Faculty Cluster Initiative in Geographic Information Systems, introduced Altizer to the YouthMappers program and found an enthusiastic match.

“Nick took the lead and went on to co-found the UCF chapter of YouthMappers,” Hawthorne said.

In 2016 as a YouthMappers volunteer, Altizer compared satellite images he downloaded from areas of Mozambique with information other YouthMappers organizations in the field had collected to establish, which roads typically flood during rainy seasons and what alternative routes might be available.

“Basically we can map just about any information that will be useful to people who don’t have access to a lot of resources,” Altizer said.

He was offered the internship after his volunteer work and his other experiences including a trip to Belize with the Citizen Science GIS NationalScience Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates group led by Hawthorne.  There Altizer served as a staff leader for a team that focused on identifying marine debris from flooding that was accumulating onshore and presenting a health hazard.  That information was gathered with the use of drones on-site.

The researchers share their data via OpenStreetMap, a free online map of the world that encourages active data sharing on everything from roads and trails to cafes and railroad stations.

He and Hawthorne are also currently working on a project co-founded between UCF and the University of Belize called the Open Reef Mapping Society to map all the islands of Belize, taking special note of precautions coastal residents have taken to protect against sea level rise and adapt to climate change.

The YouthMappers organization is supported by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).  As part of his internship, Altizer will map and verify location data from reports on the ground, mesh the intelligence with satellite imagery, and blog about his experiences.  He also hopes to attend international conferences to present his data.

Hawthorne said employment in the Geographic Information Systems field is wide open with specific needs by governments and non-profit agencies to assist with mapping and population planning.  And he said Altizer, with his hands-on experience both at home and internationally, will likely make him a leading candidate for many positions.

UCF offers a Graduate Certificate program in Geographic Information Systems to complement degrees in other fields.

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