Maggie Cawley: “What else can we do but keep going?”

Maggie Cawley
Maggie Cawley
Maggie Cawley is the Founder of Boomerang Geospatial, a geospatial consulting company specializing in education and dabbling in other map-related endeavors. Current Boomerang efforts include developing curriculum around open source GIS and leading educational and wildlife trips in southern Africa. She volunteers with TeachOSM to integrate geography back into classrooms through open mapping, and supports OpenStreetMap US as a board member. She recently helped start Diadia Craft Collective with a Sān Bushmen community in Botswana and African Connection with musicians in Ghana to support sustainable economic development and cultural collaboration (and also, for fun!). 

So Maggie Cawley – where are you in the world currently and what do you do?

Way to start with the tough ones 😉 At the moment I am splitting my time mostly between Denmark and the US. This week I am in Baltimore, in my first leased apartment in 5 years. I can count on one hand the weeks I’ve been here since I moved in, but it is a welcome change after sleeping in 40+ beds over the last year. My front porch is a sanctuary!  

What do I do? I am a freelance open source mapping consultant through my company Boomerang Geospatial, which equates to a smattering of jobs. I love training new mappers as much as I love diving into a dataset and surfacing with a beautiful map. I volunteer on the steering committee for the TeachOSM project, and we provide educational support for OpenStreetMap and work to get OpenStreetMap and open mapping into classrooms around the world. One of my goals is to develop a knowledge management system for the project – a giant library of every OSM-related educational nugget ever created. I also volunteer as a board member for OpenStreetMap US, which includes weekly board meetings, State of the Map US planning meetings, and hiring committee meetings as we are looking to hire the organization’s first Executive Director.

When wearing my other hats, I facilitate and lead safaris and educational trips to southern Africa, recently became the representative for Diadia, a small jewelry making collective in the Kalahari, and in a few months I will be playing keyboard in Denmark with my band African Connection.

Are there more people wanting to know about OpenStreetMap?

I like to think there are millions of people just waiting to find out! In my experience, once people hear a little about OpenStreetMap they are curious to know more. In a classroom or training situation that is especially true. If a few complaints surface about other online map sources having incorrect or missing information, you definitely have a starting point.

I see that you taught an OSM workshop in St Lucia with Steven Johnson a few years ago. How difficult is OSM to teach to people unfamiliar with the idea of a crowd sourced map?

I have had the privilege of teaching workshops with Steven Johnson in a few wonderful places, including St Lucia, over the past few years; places that aren’t always adequately mapped, where errors are commonplace, and where people are excited to learn new technology. The initial conveyance of the concept of an editable world map is not always easy, and there is always the, “Isn’t everything already mapped? What about Google?” to get through – but once people sign up and start editing in their neighborhood, the comprehension begins. I find it important to take the process & understanding outside, and workshops incorporate a field mapping exercise whenever possible. Bringing new mappers outside to map using a GPS unit, Field Papers, Mapillary, OSMAnd, Maps.Me or other mobile mapping tools brings geography into a 1:1 scale, and creates a concrete relationship to what is on the ground and what is on The Map. After this portion of the workshop, mapping in the classroom is brought to a new level and the understanding deepens.

We’ve run into each other at FOSS4GNA Conferences through the years – in 2016 you did a presentation on some work you did in Africa. How did you get from Baltimore to staring at Elephants in Africa?

This is a long story, but I will try to provide the abridged version! Back in 2013, I quit a full time job as an environmental planner to start a business and travel. I was ready for a change. My idea was to travel as long as I could, looking for opportunities to map along the way. The first stop was Sodwana Bay, South Africa where I couchsurfed with a man who takes people on overland trips in southern Africa in his Land Rover through his company Winterdodger Expeditions. When I arrived, he was about to do 3 months through 23 national parks and at least 6 countries. He had an extra tent and room in the Landy, so I jumped in. Two months into that trip, we stopped in western Botswana, at a place in the Kalahari Desert called Dqae Qare – a game reserve run by the San Bushmen. I saw they did not have an accurate map of the reserve, and offered my services in exchange for a few cold Windhoek lagers and a few nights in a real bed. Over the next week, our team of three travelers navigated the entire farm (more than 150 km) and mapped every road, pan, campsite, water tap, view point and amenity we could find – and I realized just how special a place we had found. I was hooked. The map now lives on their reception wall.


Photo: January 2018, in front of the map in Dqae with GWU professors Joseph Dymond and Richard Hinton.

After that trip, I continued to travel on my own, but my mind continued to return to southern Africa. Fast forward to early 2015 when I received a message from a friend in South Africa who needed someone with mapping knowledge, equipment, and teaching experience to lead a group of students from a French University in a conservation project to support Lake Sibaya – South Africa’s largest freshwater lake. Fortunately, I was teaching in Mauritius at the time, and the trip to SA was not too far. After that month mapping wildlife and teaching in Sibaya, I partnered with his company Winterdodger to do more trips in the region. Save Sibaya is now an ongoing project, and visitors continually add to the wildlife census database.

Photo: Lake Sibaya, 2015 – a drone demo for the French students to collect imagery of the changing lake.

Most recently, I led my first study abroad group from George Washington University on a trip to Botswana through Boomerang. We returned to Dqae Qare, and even spent some time contributing to OpenStreetMap in the local San village where we were volunteering. As far as elephants, I don’t think I will ever tire of staring, and can’t wait to share that experience with the next car full of interested people! GeoHipster safari anyone?

Photos: The GWU students on a walking safari in the Okavango Delta, Botswana.

So you’re out mapping in a game preserve – how does that work? On foot? What were your tools?

Roads are mostly done by car (usually a Land Rover) with a handheld or car GPS. I have also hooked a Garmin watch to the dashboard and just let it do its thing. For smaller paths and points of interest, I use a solid pair of boots and a basic Garmin GPS unit. In some cases an aerial view is nice to have so I’ll use a drone. At a national park in Malawi we were trying to spot some klipspringer, so I flew a Phantom drone – it was the first version and I just hooked my watch to the base for a GPS backup for the path. In Botswana we had some students helping to do mammal tracking with a specific interest in cheetah. We went out with two Bushmen tracking guides and marked the different footprints and skat we could find, again with basic GPS. I know there are more fancy tools out there, but all of these projects have been done on a shoestring budget so we keep it simple.​

What do you do with the data? Maps? Does it live on a computer somewhere?

Mostly map it. In Botswana, the cheetah data was given to the managing trust, or made into maps for them. The data that doesn’t immediately become a map lives on one of my portable hard drives just waiting for the chance to make its mapping debut.

Was there a fear of becoming lunch?

There is always that sense of ‘what the hell am I doing out here?’ But, it’s exciting. And beautiful. In Malawi, that national park was ​known for having some aggressive elephant herds that you do not want to face on foot. We had the opportunity to scramble around on one of the only rock outcrops looking for signs of these tiny antelope, with a view of an incredible, vast landscape below – those moments make it all worth it. And you can stare at the elephant from afar!

In Botswana we knew there were no lions or elephants, but the snakes and hyenas in the Kalahari are enough to keep me on my toes. ​Ostrich can also pack a punch as well, especially if you unknowingly wander towards one of their nests. Tread lightly!​


Photo: The cheetah tracking group in Dqae Qare Game Reserve.

How hard is it leading a group of college students who haven’t been in that environment before?

It can be challenging at times, and very worrying at others. But seeing anyone lay eyes upon the wildlife for the first time makes it all worthwhile. Unless it’s a bull elephant 4 meters away and they all scream “AN ELEPHANT!” and gesticulate wildly, not noticing the elephants accelerated advance… then, all bets are off! Mostly though, students are respectful of the people and animals we meet, and just want to know more. On my last trip I also had the privilege of traveling with two wonderful GWU professors that were a great help. Many are also very afraid of becoming lunch!

I want to break new ground on this interview – Jewelry making collective in the Kalahari? We’ve never talked about jewelry on any GeoHipster interview.

​Hard to believe there’s never been any geo-jewelry talk! I am honored to be the first. In January when I was in Botswana with the GW students, a local village artisan taught a workshop on how to make beads out of ostrich egg shells. I had seen the jewelry many times during visits to the area – at lodges, at the airport, etc – and came to find out that sales by a larger organization were not helping the local village artisans. After a week in the village, the director of the village trust asked me if I would help to sell the jewelry. The San are a very marginalized population, and there are very few opportunities for employment in the area. Making sure the artisans knew I had no previous experience in the field, I agreed – but only if they would organize into a collective so that I could just be the sales rep. ​In March, a friend delivered a package containing 20lbs of ostrich egg jewelry to Denmark, and in April the Diadia Craft Collective was formed. Right now it is seven women from different families within the village. It is a new endeavor for me, and it’s a bit more complicated than scrambling up that rock outcropping looking for klipspringer – but I’m so excited to give it a try. I have designed a website, and I will have my first market table this weekend in Baltimore. Hopefully by my next trip to Botswana I’ll be needing to pick up a second package of inventory. It would be wonderful to create a profitable livelihood in a village that would sustain the families and also the ancient bead making tradition.

Do you feel like a geohipster?

Ha. I tried that role once. The tire of my rented foldable bike got caught in a train track on my way to a FOSS4G PDX event a few years ago, and I showed up with torn pants and a bloody knee. Hipster move? I think not. 🙂 But if a geohipster lives “on the outskirts of mainstream GIS”? Yeah, I probably fit that description.

OK – before I do the last question – Band?

I blame this one on fate. And again, I’ll try to keep it short! Two years ago I was taking a group of students with Winterdodger through Botswana. Along the way I met a Danish musician with whom I shared some of my wildlife photographs. He immediately invited me to join his band on tour in Ghana a month later as their tour photographer. It took some juggling and a leap of faith, but one month later I was in Ghana, in a van with 8 Danish & Ghanaian musicians. Half way through the tour, things went south with the lead Ghanaian musician. Instead of breaking up, the remaining musicians came together to make some new music. I picked up a cowbell and joined in the fun. By the end of the trip, we recorded two songs, wrote a few more, and the band African Connection was formed. I love the cowbell, but I now play keyboard for the band (with an occasional cowbell interlude), and still handle most of the photography and press. Our first album, Queens & Kings, was recorded last year in Denmark and released in March. We will go on our first tour this October in Denmark and Germany, and hopefully return to Ghana with the music in early 2019. It is a challenge working from 3 continents, but it makes it that much more special when we can all get together. I feel really lucky to be a part of the project and have the opportunity to try something completely different. We are on Spotify if you’d like to check us out!


Photo: Music For All festival performance in Cape Coast, Ghana – January 2017.

The last question is yours. This is your chance to yell at the world and tell it something it needs to know.

You won’t know unless you go! When I quit my job to freelance and travel, I thought I knew where it would take me. I was way off. Frustrated at first, I then realized that I had leapt into a raging river, and the only way to stay afloat was to trust it, even if I kept hitting sharp rocks along the way. It was hard to ignore a society that wanted to bully me into the things I was ‘supposed’ to be doing – confidence can start to waiver when you have no work or are spewing your guts & belly crawling across a salt pan in the middle of the night – but what else can we do but keep going? I often have to remind myself to just show up. Some days it is difficult to get up in the morning, but if you are already in the river, sometimes all you really need to do is hold your head up and have a little faith. And I must add –  I am grateful for the amazing and supportive people I’ve met in the FOSS4G and OpenStreetMap communities. We help keep each other afloat, and that is a beautiful thing. I hope we can maintain that spirit – welcome a new person into the geo community or talk to someone you don’t know at the next meet up – collaboration and support are key, especially now.