Of maps, apps and earthquakes

When I landed in Esmeraldas, Ecuador, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I arrived exactly three months after an earthquake with magnitude 7.8 had struck the North-West of the country and left a trail of destruction. Esmeraldas, one of the most vulnerable provinces in Ecuador, was worst hit.

I had come to Ecuador to train young trainers on how to digitally map the devastating effects of the earthquake – the young trainers would then organize workshops to teach peers. UNICEF’s Voices of Youth Maps initiative aims to empower young people in challenging environments through digital mapping technology. The technology – a phone app that is easily accessed – allows them to collaboratively highlight challenges in their communities on a virtual map, and use the map to raise awareness and advocate for change.

A young woman looking at a phone.
UNICED/HQ/LiatowitschA young trainer is testing the Voices of Youth digital mapping app.

I had implemented digital mapping trainings before. But never had I done so in an emergency setting, and never in an area that was still seismically active.

I was on my way to the venue to kick off the one-week training when I experienced my first aftershock. It felt like several jackhammers were piercing the ground right next to me – it wasn’t long, but it was very intense. I was scared.

It took me a while to process what had just happened. Once I did, the wait started – the wait for the next aftershock. It didn’t occur until three days later. But on my first morning in Esmeraldas, I realized something important: how difficult it must be to live in an environment where a permanent state of uncertainty is the norm.

During the first part of the training participants were invited to identify main challenges pertaining to the earthquake. Most of them had already gotten used to the aftershocks. However, the trainers unanimously agreed that besides the physical damage, psychological trauma is the number one problem young people are struggling with. Memories of the devastating event and the fear of another potential earthquake create a prevalent state of anxiety.

In difficult circumstances one can quickly feel powerless, lose hope and become disengaged. But contrary to my expectations, I witnessed the absolute opposite. I met young people taking up crucial roles in their communities, eager to help and become part of the solution.

With few psychological services available, peer-to-peer support has become an essential form of psychosocial support in affected communities. Young people are signing up for volunteer activities – they hand out food, support rebuilding efforts and teach children how to stay safe.

If I had to pick one thing that impressed me most during my time in Ecuador it is this attitude, this genuine desire to help. It shows a truth too often forgotten, a truth overshadowed by negative headlines and stereotypes about young people. Young people across the world are taking up vital responsibilities in their communities – the impact of their efforts will be even stronger if we support them and give them the proper tools to enact change.

The digital mapping project in Ecuador has been launched, the trainers trained, and I’m already back in New York. Over the coming weeks, the young trainers will implement digital mapping workshops across Esmeraldas, starting to pass on their knowledge and to feed the virtual map. One month after my trip – at the four-month-mark of the April earthquake – I feel hopeful that we have made a little contribution, enabling an amazing group of young people to do amazing things.

Mischa Liatowitsch is a Youth Engagement Coordinator at UNICEF HQ.


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