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Professor strives to improve map symbols

Samantha Flory / Photographer: John Kostelnick, assistant professor in the Department of Geography-Geology has been working towards developing alternative methods to help people identify map symbols.

Samantha Flory / Photographer:
John Kostelnick, assistant professor in the Department of Geography-Geology has been working towards developing alternative methods to help people identify map symbols.

An Illinois State University professor and his team at ISU are working to improve map symbols used by humanitarian relief organizations during times of crisis.

John Kostelnick, assistant professor in the Department of Geography-Geology, began this project within the past year and is developing ways to help identify mapping challenges worldwide.

The hope is to effectively communicate critical information through a web-based mapping system when a natural disaster or human conflict arises.

The first phase of the project for Kostelnick is conducting a survey. He and his team are asking for input from numerous organizations across the world. Some of the groups participating in the survey include the United Nations, American Red Cross and United States Agency for International Development.

“We’ve got some different organizations that are curious about what we find in this survey,” Kostelnick said. “As far as we know, nobody has done this type of work looking at a bunch of organizations all across the world.”

The survey as of now has gathered 47 participants in over 50 countries, spanning five continents. The overall goal by the time of completion is to have at least 100 participants, Kostelnick said.

The most prevalent issue reported from the survey with the current mapping system is confusion over a standard set of symbols. When you cross borders within states or even countries each organization may use their own set of symbols.

The key would be to standardize the mapping symbols during these times of crisis to allow for a universal understanding of the situation based upon a single set of symbols.

“When you have these types of disasters and humanitarian crises, maps are useful for all types of purposes,” Kostelnick said.  “What got hit? Where is the damage? Where are the relief supplies? Where are people who need supplies? We use maps to help coordinate the relief.”

For more than a decade, Kostelnick has studied maps and does extensive work with Geographic Information Systems (GIS). His past research has helped organizations use mapping to remove landmines and determine rising sea levels.

Kostelnick wants to spread his knowledge of mapping toward humanitarian work globally, but he also wishes to instill a lesson with students.

“I want to make a positive difference in the world,” Kostelnick said. “My hope is that maybe some of them will get interested in this and want to do this for a career.”

This spring, Kostelnick hopes to have a report which summarizes the findings of the survey to take a practical approach at the situation.

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