I first blogged about Mobile Crisis Mapping (MCM) back in October 2008 and several times since. The purpose of this post to put together the big picture. What do I mean by MCM? Why is it important? And how would I like to see MCM evolve?
When I coined the term Mobile Crisis Mapping last October, I wrote that MCM was the next logical step in the field of crisis mapping. One month later, at the first Crisis Mappers Meeting, I emphasized the need to think of maps as communication tools and once again referred to MCM. In my posts on the Crisis Mapping Conference Proposal and A Brief History of Crisis Mapping, I referred to MCM but only in passing.
More recently, I noted the MCM component of the UN’s Threat and Risk Mapping (TRMA) project in the Sudan and referred to two projects presented at the ICTD2009 conference in Doha—one on quality of data collected using mobile phones and the second on a community-based mapping iniative called Folksomaps.
So what is Mobile Crisis Mapping? The most obvious answer is that MCM is the collection of georeferenced crisis information using peer to peer (P2P) mobile technology. Related to MCM are the challenges of data validation, communication security and so on.
But there’s more. P2P communication is bi-directional, e.g., two-way SMS broadcasting. This means that MCM is also about the ability of the end-user in the field being to query a crisis map using an SMS and/or voice-based interface. Therein lies the combined value of MCM: collection and query.
The Folksomaps case study comes closest to what I have in mind. The project uses binary operators to categorize relationships between objects mapped to render queries possible. For instance, ‘is towards left of’ could be characterized as <Libya, Egypt>.
The methodology draws on the Web Ontology Language (OWL) to model the categorical characteristics of an object (e.g., direction, proximity, etc), and thence infer new relationships not explicitly specified by users of the system. In other words, Folksomaps provides an ontology of locations.
Once this ontology is created, the map can actually be queried at a distance. That’s what I consider to be the truly innovative and unique aspect of MCM. The potential added value is huge, and James BonTempo describes exactly how huge MCM could be in his superb presentation on extending FrontlineSMS.
An initiative related to Folksomaps and very much in line with my thinking about MCM is Cartagen. This project uses string-based geocoding (e.g. “map Bhagalpur, India”) to allow users in the field to produce and search their own maps by using the most basic of mobile phones. “This widens participation to 4 billion cell phone users worldwide, as well as to rural regions outside the reach of the internet. Geographic mapping with text messages has applications in disaster response and health care.”
The query functionality is thus key to Mobile Crisis Mapping. One should be able to “mobile-query” a crisis map by SMS or voice.
If I’m interfacing with an Ushahidi deployment in the Sudan, I should be able to send an SMS to find out where, relative to my location, an IDP camp is located; or where the closest airfield is, etc. Query results can be texted back to the mobile phone and the user can forward that result to others. I should also be able to call up a designated number and walk through a simple Interactive Voice Response (IVR) interface to get the same answer.
Once these basic search queries are made available, more complex, nested queries can be developed—again, see James BonTempo’s presentation to get a sense of the tremendous potential of MCM.
The reason I see MCM as the next logical step in the field of crisis mapping is because more individuals have access to mobile phones in humanitarian crises than a computer connected to the Web. In short, the point of Mobile Crisis Mapping is to bring Crisis Mapping Analytics (CMA) to the mobile phone.