Monthly Archives: March 2009

A Brief History of Crisis Mapping (Updated)


One of the donors I’m in contact with about the proposed crisis mapping conference wisely recommended I add a big-picture background to crisis mapping. This blog post is my first pass at providing a brief history of the field. In a way, this is a combined summary of several other posts I have written on this blog over the past 12 months plus my latest thoughts on crisis mapping.

Evidently, this account of history is very much influenced by my own experience so I may have unintentionally missed a few relevant crisis mapping projects. Note that by crisis  I refer specifically to armed conflict and human rights violations. As usual, I welcome any feedback and comments you may have so I can improve my blog posts.

From GIS to Neogeography: 2003-2005

The field of dynamic crisis mapping is new and rapidly changing. The three core drivers of this change are the increasingly available and accessible of (1) open-source, dynamic mapping tools; (2) mobile data collection technologies; and lastly (3) the development of new methodologies.

Some experts at the cutting-edge of this change call the results “Neogeography,” which is essentially about “people using and creating their own maps, on their own terms and by combining elements of an existing toolset.” The revolution in applications for user-generated content and mobile technology provides the basis for widely distributed information collection and crowdsourcing—a term coined by Wired less than three years ago. The unprecedented rise in citizen journalism is stark evidence of this revolution. New methodologies for conflict trends analysis increasingly take spatial and/or inter-annual dynamics into account and thereby reveal conflict patterns that otherwise remain hidden when using traditional methodologies.

Until recently, traditional mapping tools were expensive and highly technical geographic information systems (GIS), proprietary software that required extensive training to produce static maps.

In terms of information collection, trained experts traditionally collected conflict and human rights data and documented these using hard-copy survey forms, which typically became proprietary once completed. Scholars began coding conflict event-data but data sharing was the exception rather than the rule.

With respect to methodologies, the quantitative study of conflict trends was virtually devoid of techniques that took spatial dynamics into account because conflict data at the time was largely macro-level data constrained by the “country-year straightjacket.”

That is, conflict data was limited to the country-level and rarely updated more than once a year, which explains why methodologies did not seek to analyze sub-national and inter-annual variations for patterns of conflict and human rights abuses. In addition, scholars in the political sciences were more interested in identifying when conflict as likely to occur as opposed to where. For a more in-depth discussion of this issue, please see my paper from 2006  “On Scale and Complexity in Conflict Analysis” (PDF).

Neogeography is Born: 2005

The pivotal year for dynamic crisis mapping was 2005. This is the year that Google rolled out Google Earth. The application marks an important milestone in Neogeography because the free, user-friendly platform drastically reduced the cost of dynamic and interactive mapping—cost in terms of both availability and accessibility. Microsoft has since launched Virual Earth to compete with Google Earth and other  potential contenders.

Interest in dynamic crisis mapping did exist prior to the availability of Google Earth. This is evidenced by the dynamic mapping initiatives I took at Swisspeace in 2003. I proposed that the organization use GIS tools to visualize, animate and analyze the geo-referenced conflict event-data collected by local Swisspeace field monitors in conflict-ridden countries—a project called FAST. In a 2003 proposal, I defined dynamic crisis maps as follows:

FAST Maps are interactive geographic information systems that enable users of leading agencies to depict a multitude of complex interdependent indicators on a user-friendly and accessible two-dimensional map. […] Users have the option of selecting among a host of single and composite events and event types to investigate linkages [between events]. Events and event types can be superimposed and visualized through time using FAST Map’s animation feature. This enables users to go beyond studying a static picture of linkages to a more realistic dynamic visualization.

I just managed to dig up old documents from 2003 and found the interface I had designed for FAST Maps using the template at the time for Swisspeace’s website.



However, GIS software was (and still is) prohibitively expensive and highly technical. To this end, Swisspeace was not compelled to make the necessary investments in 2004 to develop the first crisis mapping platform for producing dynamic crisis maps using geo-referenced conflict data. In hindsight, this was the right decision since Google Earth was rolled out the following year.

Enter PRIO and GROW-net: 2006-2007

With the arrival of Google Earth, a variety of dynamic crisis maps quickly emerged. In fact, one if not the first application of Google Earth for crisis mapping was carried out in 2006 by Jen Ziemke and I. We independently used Google Earth and newly available data from the Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO) to visualize conflict data over time and space. (Note that both Jen and I were researchers at PRIO between 2006-2007).

Jen used Google Earth to explain the dynamics and spatio-temporal variation in violence during the Angolan war. To do this, she first coded nearly 10,000 battle and massacre events as reported in the Portuguese press that took place over a 40 year period.

Meanwhile, I produced additional dynamic crisis maps of the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) for PRIO and of the Colombian civil war for the Conflict Analysis Resource Center (CARC) in Bogota. At the time, researchers in Oslo and Bogota used proprietary GIS software to produce static maps (PDF) of their newly geo-referenced conflict data. PRIO eventually used Google Earth but only to publicize the novelty of their new geo-referenced historical conflict datasets.

Since then, PRIO has continued to play an important role in analyzing the spatial dynamics of armed conflict by applying new quantitative methodologies. Together with universities in Europe, the Institute formed the Geographic Representations of War-net (GROW-net) in 2006, with the goal of “uncovering the causal mechanisms that generate civil violence within relevant historical and geographical and historical configurations.” In 2007, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH), a member of GROW-net, produced dynamic crisis maps using Google Earth for a project called WarViews.

Crisis Mapping Evolves: 2007-2008

More recently, Automated Crisis Mapping (ACM), real-time and automated information collection mechanisms using natural language processing (NLP) have been developed for the automated and dynamic mapping of disaster and health-related events. Examples of such platforms include the Global Disaster Alert and Crisis System (GDACS), CrisisWire, Havaria and HealthMap. Similar platforms have been developed for  automated mapping of other news events, such as Global Incident Map, BuzzTracker, Development Seed’s Managing the News, and the Joint Research Center’s European Media Monitor.

Equally recent is the development of Mobile Crisis Mapping (MCM), mobile crowdsourcing platforms designed for the dynamic mapping of conflict and human rights data as exemplified by Ushahidi (with FrontLineSMS) and the Humanitarian Sensor Web (SensorWeb).

Another important development around this time is the practice of participatory GIS preceded by the recognition that social maps and conflict maps can empower local communities and be used for conflict resolution. Like maps of natural disasters and environmental degradation, these can be developed and discussed at the community level to engage conversation and joint decision-making. This is a critical component since one of the goals of crisis mapping is to empower individuals to take better decisions.

HHI’s Crisis Mapping Project: 2007-2009

The Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) is currently playing a pivotal role in crafting the new field of dynamic crisis mapping. Coordinated by Jennifer Leaning and myself, HHI is completing a two-year applied research project on Crisis Mapping and Early Warning. This project comprised a critical and comprehensive evaluation of the field and the documentation of lessons learned, best practices as well as alternative and innovative approaches to crisis mapping and early warning.

HHI also acts as an incubator for new projects and  supported the conceptual development of new crisis mapping platforms like Ushahidi and the SensorWeb. In addition, HHI produced the first comparative and dynamic crisis map of Kenya by drawing on reports from the mainstream media, citizen journalists and Ushahidi to analyze spatial and temporal patterns of conflict events and communication flows during a crisis.

HHI’s Sets a Research Agenda: 2009

HHI has articulated an action-oriented research agenda for the future of crisis mapping based on the findings from the two-year crisis mapping project. This research agenda can be categorized into the following three areas, which were coined by HHI:

  1. Crisis Map Sourcing
  2. Mobile Crisis Mapping
  3. Crisis Mapping Analytics

1) Crisis Map Sourcing (CMS) seeks to further research on the challenge of visualizing disparate sets of data ranging from structural and dynamic data to automated and mobile crisis mapping data. The challenge of CMS is to develop appropriate methods and best practices for mashing data from Automated Crisis Mapping (ACM) tools and Mobile Crisis Mapping platforms (see below) to add value to Crisis Mapping Analytics (also below).

2) The purpose of setting an applied-research agenda for Mobile Crisis Mapping, or MCM, is to recognize that the future of distributed information collection and crowdsourcing will be increasingly driven by mobile technologies and new information ecosystems. This presents the crisis mapping community with a host of pressing challenges ranging from data validation and manipulation to data security.

These hurdles need to be addressed directly by the crisis mapping community so that new and creative solutions can be applied earlier rather than later. If the persistent problem of data quality is not adequately resolved, then policy makers may question the reliability of crisis mapping for conflict prevention, rapid response and the documentation of human rights violations. Worse still, inaccurate data may put lives at risk.

3) Crisis Mapping Analytics (CMA) is the third critical area of research set by HHI. CMA is becoming increasingly important given the unprecedented volume of geo-referenced data that is rapidly becoming available. Existing academic platforms like WarViews and operational MCM platforms like Ushahidi do not include features that allow practitioners, scholars and the public to query the data and to visually analyze and identify the underlying spatial dynamics of the conflict and human rights data. This is largely true of Automated Crisis Mapping (ACM) tools as well.

In other words, new and informative metrics are need to be developed to identify patterns in human rights abuses and violent conflict both retrospectively and in real-time. In addition, existing techniques from spatial econometrics need to be rendered more accessible to non-statisticians and built into existing dynamic crisis mapping platforms.


Jen Ziemke and I thus conclude that the most pressing need in the field of crisis mapping is to bridge the gap between scholars and practitioners who self-identify as crisis mappers. This is the most pressing issue because bridging that divide will enable the field of crisis mapping to effectively and efficiently move forward by pursuing the three research agendas set out by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI).

We think this is key to moving the crisis-mapping field into more mainstream humanitarian and human rights work—i.e., operational response. But doing so first requires that leading crisis mapping scholars and practitioners proactively bridge the existing gap. This is the core goal of the crisis mapping conference that we propose to organize.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Crisis Mapping Conference Proposal

Bridging the Divide in Crisis Mapping

As mentioned in a recent blog post, my colleague Jen Ziemke and I are organizing a workshop on the topic of crisis mapping. The purpose of this workshop is to bring together a small group of scholars and practitioners who are pioneering the new field of crisis mapping. We are currently exploring funding opportunities with a number of donors and welcome any suggestions you might have for specific sponsors.

The new field of crisis mapping encompasses the collection, dynamic visualization and subsequent analysis of georeferenced information on contemporary conflicts and human rights violations.  A wide range of sources are used to create these crisis maps, (e.g. events data,  newspaper and intelligence parsing, satellite imagery, interview and survey data, SMS, etc). Scholars have developed several analytical methodologies to identify patterns in dynamic crisis maps. These range from computational methods and visualization techniques to spatial econometrics and “hot spot” analysis.

While scholars employ these sophisticated methods in their academic research, operational crisis mapping platforms developed by practitioners are completely devoid of analytical tools. At the same time, scholars often assume that humanitarian practitioners are conversant in quantitative spatial analysis, which is rarely the case. Furthermore, practitioners who are deploying crisis mapping platforms do not have time to the academic literature on this topic.

Mobile Crisis Mapping and Crisis Mapping Analytics

In other words, there is a growing divide between scholars and practitioners in the field of crisis mapping. The purpose of this workshop is to bridge this divide by bringing scholars and practitioners together to shape the future of crisis mapping. At the heart of this lies two new developments: Mobile Crisis Mapping (MCM) and Crisis Mapping Analytics (CMA). See previous blog posts on MCM and CMA here and here.

I created these terms to highlight areas in need for further applied research. As MCM platforms like Ushahidi‘s become more widely available, the amount of crowdsourced data will substantially increase and so mays of the challenges around data validation and analysis. This is why we need to think now about developing a field of Crisis Mapping Analytics (CMA) to make sense of the incoming data and identify new and recurring patterns in human rights abuses and conflict.

This entails developing user-friendly metrics for CMA that practitioners can build in as part of their MCM platforms. However, there is no need to reinvent the circle since scholars who analyze spatial and temporal patterns of conflict already employ sophisticated metrics that can inform the development of CMA metrics. In sum, a dedicated workshop that brings these practitioners and scholars together would help accelerate the developing field of crisis mapping.

Proposed Agenda

Here is a draft agenda that we’ve been sharing with prospective donors. We envisage the workshop to take place over a Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Feedback is very much welcomed.

Day 1 – Friday

Welcome and Introductions

Keynote 1 – The Past & Future of Crisis Mapping

Roundtable 1 – Presentation of Academic and Operational Crisis Mapping projects with Q&A


Track 1a – Introduction to Automated Crisis Mapping (ACM): From information collection and data validation to dynamic visualization and dissemination

Track 1b – Introduction to Mobile Crisis Mapping (MCM): From information collection and data validation to dynamic visualization and dissemination


Track 2a – Special introduction for newly interested colleagues  and students on spatial thinking in social sciences, using maps to understand crisis, violence and war

Track 2b – Breakout session for students and new faculty: hands-on introduction to GIS and other mapping programs


Day 2 – Saturday

Keynote 2 – Crisis Mapping and Patterns Analysis

Roundtable 2 – Interdisciplinary Applications: Innovations & Challenges

Roundtable 3 – Data Collection & Validations: Innovations & Challenges


Roundtable 4 – Crisis Mapping Analytics (CMA): Metrics and Taxonomies

Roundtable 5 – Crisis Mapping & Response: Innovations & Challenges


Day 3 – Sunday

Keynote 3 – What Happens Next – Shaping the Future of Crisis Mapping

Self-organized Sessions


Proposed Participants

Here are some of the main academic institutes and crisis mapping organizations we had in mind:


  • John Carrol University (JCU)
  • Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI)
  • Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO)
  • International Conflict Research, ETH Zurich
  • US Institute for Peace (USIP)
  • Political Science Department, Yale University


Next Steps

Before we can move forward on any of this, we need to identify potential donors to help co-sponsor the workshop. So please do get in touch if you have any suggestions and/or creative ideas.

Patrick Philippe Meier

New Tactics in Human Rights

I’ve been wanting to read “New Tactics in Human Rights: A Resource for Practitioners” for a while and finally found the time on the flight back from Geneva. I would definitely recommend reading New Tactics (PDF). The report combines some of my main interests: nonviolent civil resistance, tactical early warning and response, civilian protection, preparedness, technology and complex systems.

I really appreciate the group’s serious focus on tactics since most human rights organizations seem to focus more on grand strategy and advocacy—and this at the expense of tactics.

Tactical innovation is critical to the successful implementation of human rights around the globe. By expanding our thinking both tactically and strategically, the human rights community has the opportunity to be more effective.

There is often a pattern to human rights abuses—they occur in predictable places under predictable circumstances. Recognizing those patterns and disrupting them can be key to protecting human rights.

While intervention tactics are often associated with protest and resistance, some of the most dramatic successes in ending human rights abuses have resulted from negotiation and persuasion.

The report includes numerous tactics and operational examples. I summarize 5 below. I also include a brief note on self-protection and a brief conclusion.


Tactic: Protecting arrested demonstrators by protesting outside police stations where they are being detained. This tactic was employed by the anti-Milosevic student resistance movement, Otpor, in Serbia.

Otpor put substantial time and effort into building a strong, extensive and loyal network that could be mobilized quickly. Extensive planning outlined who would call whom and exactly what each person was to do after the arrests, so that the second demonstration would follow the arrests almost instantaneously. Most contact information for the network was stored on individual members’ mobile phones, so that the police could not seize or destroy the information.

West Bank

Tactic: maintaining a physical presence at the site of potential abuse to monitor and prevent human rights violations. Machsom Watch in the West Bank uses the presence of Israeli women to protect Palestinians passing through Israeli checkpoints to ensure their rights are respected.

Monitors who witness abuses make detailed reports and publish them on their website. They invite journalists, politicians and others to join them at the checkpoints. And they wear tags that read in Arabic “No to the checkpoints!” This show of support is heartening to many Palestinians, who may not have a positive image of Israelis.

Northern Ireland

Tactic: using mobile phones to create a network of communication that can stop violence before it escalates. Like any conflict, there are people on both sides who want to prevent the escalation of violence. So the Interaction Belfast group identified leaders in each community who want to prevent violence and provided them with needed information.

During events that are likely to cause violence […] the network plans ahead to monitor key areas. Volunteers recognize that they are able to intervene most effectively in cases of ‘recreational violence’— youth seeking excitement or responding to rumors […].

When volunteers see or hear of crowds gathering [in potential areas of conflict], or hear of rumors of violence about to occur on the other side, they call their counterparts […]. Volunteers calm crowds on their own sides before the incidents become violent. Since the program began, the phone network has both prevented violence and provided communities on both sides of the interface with more accurate information when violence does occur.


Tactic: creating a single mass expression of protest based on a simple activity that citizens can safely carry out in their own homes. This tactic was used by the “Campaign of Darkness for Light” in Turkey, which mobilized some 30 million people to flick their lights on and to protest against government corruption.

With many citiznes afraid to participate in political action, organizations needed a tactic of low personal risk that would overcome the sense of isolation that comes with fear.

Organizers initially proposed that citizens turn off their lights for one minute each night.  […]. By the second week, communities began to improvise, initiating different street actions, including banging post and pans. By the time organizers halted the action, the campaign had gone on for more than a month.


Tactic: Using the power of the media to send targetted messages to people in a position to end abuses. In this example, journalists in Burundi used radio broadcasts to persuade key leaders to end human rights abuses occurring in hospitals. They secretely interviewed detainees and broadcast their testimonies. “The broadcasts included messages targetted to specific groups and invididuals who had the power to fix the situations.”


Unfortunately, the report’s 2-page section on “Self-Care: Caring for Your Most Valuable Resource,” is not as well developed as the others. The report could have drawn more extensively from civil resistance training and digital activism. There is also much to be learned from survivor testimonies and security training manuals from field based UN-agencies operating in places like Somalia.


That aside, I think the New Tactics group is doing some of the most exciting research in thiearea of tactics for civilian protection for communities at risk. I highly recommend spending time on their website and browsing through the rich materials they provide.

Patrick Philippe Meier

GIS and GPS for Dangerous Environments

A colleague of mine recently pointed me to SAIC’s IKE 504, a GIS-integrated encrypted GPS targeting and data capture device. IKE captures the GPS coordinates and other geospatial data for any target from a safe distance (up to 1,000 meters) and provides a verifiable digital image of the target. To this end, IKE can be used for specialized mapping.


Patrick Philippe Meier

LIFT09: Vint Cerf on InterPlaNetary Internet (IPN)

Google’s Vice President and Internet Evangelist Vint Cerf gave the closing talk of LIFT09. The topic? Nothing too ambitious, just “The Future of Information and Communication Technology.” Vint touched on a number of issues ranging from mobile technology to inter-cloud communications. “For most people in the world, their first experience with the Internet will be through mobile technology.”

On inter-cloud communication, Vint highlighted the following key questions:

  • How to refer to other clouds?
  • How to refer to data in other clouds?
  • How to make data references persistent (unlike urls)?
  • How to protect Clouds from various forms of attack (inside, between clouds)?

He argued that we need a global agreement about privacy issues as we shift to cloud computing. He compared this with the Law of the Sea agreement. But what he really wanted to talk about was the InterPlaNetary Internet (IPN).


“The objective of the Interplanetary Internet project is to define the architecture and protocols necessary to permit interoperation of the Internet resident on Earth with other remotely located internets resident on other planets or spacecraft in transit.

While the Earth’s Internet is basically a ‘network of connected networks’ the Interplanetary Internet may therefore be thought of as a “network of disconnected Internets”. Inter-working in this environment will require new techniques to be developed.

Many elements of the current terrestrial Internet suite of protocols are expected to be useful in low-delay space environments, such as local operations on and around other planets or within free flying space vehicles. However, the speed-of-light delays, intermittent and unidirectional connectivity, and error-rates characteristic of deep-space communication make their use unfeasible across deep-space distances.

It is also anticipated that the architecture and protocols developed by this project will be useful in many terrestrial environments in which a dependence on real-time interactive communication is either unfeasible or inadvisable.”

For further information, see the project website here.

Patrick Philippe Meier

LIFT09: LifeStream Data Visualization

I hope the team behind LifeStream uploads their official visualizations video very soon. LifeStream takes a design approach to visualizing large quantities of information. LifeStreamer Jan-Christoph Zoels explores how “design information visualizations make what is hidden, unhidden.” When visualized in certain ways, data moves from information to knowledge and knowledge, and knowledge to wisdom.

“The representation stage is the single most important stage in a visualization project,” add Jan-Christoph. Why? “Because decisions made at this stage can necessitate a rethinking of decisions made at earlier stages.” Lifestreaming is not finished once the data is visualized in an engaging and clear way. The next important step is to “add methods to interact with the visualization, to manipulate and control the visible features.” (Incidentally, this is also critical for crisis mapping).

The team previewed their very neat visualization video at LIFT09 and below is a copy filmed by Mark Krinsky during the presentation.

In sum, Lifestream is about shaping new paradigms in user interface design; “paradigms that will allow us to see and handle more information than traditional interfaces by combining different aspects or perspectives.” The team at Lifestream concluded their superb presentation by sharing their thoughts on what makes the best visualizations so appealing. In their own words, visualizations need to be “Natural, Engaging, Flowing, Climactic, Seamless, Accessible, Forgiving, Multi-Model/Sensorial and Enjoyable.

Patrick Philippe Meier

LIFT09: Visualizing City Dynamics (Updated)

There were two neat presentations on data visualization of communication dynamics in urban environments. The first, by Stéphane Distinguin from UrbanMobs, included the following visualization of text messages sent throughout Paris during World Music Day:

The visualization below is of “mobile phone calls in Barcelona during the European Football Championship 2008 final and the day after the victory. You can easily notice the different game phases: kick off, half time, goal, end of the match and celebration of the Spanish team victory.”

Carlo Ratti from MIT’s SENSEable City Lab also gave a really neat talk on dynamic visualizations within cities and the patterns that arise.


Carlo showed engaging visualizations are a series of cities. Take the Real Time Rome project which aggregated data from mobile phones over different periods in Rome. The video represents the communication patterns across Rome during a Madonna concert.

Time zones influence the global rhythm of communications. In the video below, international calls between New York and 255 countries are visualized over a 24-hour period. “Areas of the world receiving and making fewer phone calls shrink while areas experiencing a greater amount of voice call activity expand.”

Carlo also showed an animation of “The Water Pavilion” located at the entrance to Expo Zaragoza 2008. Carlo and his team wanted to convey the sense of water in digital terms and therefore designed an interactive building made of water. Think of digital water like an inkjet printer on a large scale but with water instead of ink.

Patrick Philippe Meier