Proposing the Field of Crisis Mapping

There are no books on Crisis Mapping, no peer-reviewed journals, no undergraduate or graduate courses, no professional seminars. And yet, after co-directing the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s (HHI) Program on Crisis Mapping and Early Warning (CM&EW) for 2-years, I can confirm that an informal field and community of crisis mapping is veritably thriving.

The incredible interest around the first International Conference on Crisis Mapping (ICCM 2009) is further testament to this effect. Over 50 organizations are expected to participate and three leading donors have come together to generously support the formalization of Crisis Mapping as a field of study and practice. The conference is co-organized by myself at HHI and my colleague Professor Jen Ziemke at John Carroll University (JCU).

The findings from HHI’s 2-year program on Crisis Mapping were invaluable in developing a proposed research agenda for the field. This agenda serves the basis of ICCM 2009. I regularly refer to this research agenda when asked by colleagues: “What is crisis mapping?” Crisis Mapping is more than mapping crisis data. There are three key pillars that I have identified as being integral to crisis mapping.

1. Crisis Map Sourcing (CMS)
2. Crisis Mapping Analysis (CMA)
3. Crisis Mapping Response (CMR)

Each of these three pillars constitutes an important area of research for crisis mapping. I briefly describe what each of these constitutes below. Professor Ziemke and I are working together to further develop the crisis mapping taxonomy I crafted at HHI. If we are to begin formalizing the field, then the community may benefit from a common language. So we’re co-authoring a paper on the topic and look forward to sharing it in the near future.

Crisis Map Sourcing

How does one collect information in such a way that mapping can add value? There are four principal methodologies in crisis map sourcing: (1) Crisis Map Coding, (2) Participatory Crisis Mapping, (3) Mobile Crisis Mapping and (4) Automated Crisis Mapping. The common thread between the three is that they each look to extract event-data for crisis mapping purposes.

Crisis Map Coding (CMC) draws on hand-coding geo-referenced event-data like the project ACLED at the Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO). This methodology is widely used by political scientists as evidenced by the peer-reviewed literature on the topic.  See also Jen Ziemke’s work on hand-coding conflict data on the Angolan civil war. While manually coding event data is certainly not a new approach, the focus on geo-referencing this data is relatively recent.

Participatory Crisis Mapping (PCM) is participatory mapping with a focus on crises. A good example is the UNDP’s Threat and Risk Mapping Analysis (TRMA) project in the Sudan, which uses focus groups to map local knowledge on threats and risks at the community level.

Mobile Crisis Mapping (MCM) seeks to leverage mobile technologies for crisis mapping. This includes the use of mobile phones, geospatial technologies and unmanned areal vehicles (UAVs). Ushahidi, AAAS and ITHACA are all good examples of mobile crisis mapping in action. These different technologies enable us to experiment with new methodologies such as the crowdsourcing of crisis information, automated change detection using satellite imagery and real-time mashups with UAVs. More information on MCM is available here.

Automated Crisis Mapping (ACM) looks at natural language processing and computational linguistics to extract event-data. While this field of study is not new, it has been progressing rapidly over the years as evidenced by Crimson Hexagon’s work on sentiment extraction and the European Media Monitor’s (EMM) clustering algorithms. What is new in this area is the focus on automated mapping like GDACS and the use  semantic web parsing like BioCaster.

Crisis Mapping Analysis

How does one analyze crisis mapping data to identify patterns over space and time? There are three principle approaches in crisis mapping analysis: (1) Crisis Mapping Visualization, (2) Crisis Mapping Analytics and (3) Crisis Map Modeling. Note that there is a pressing need to enable more collaboration in the analytical process. Platforms that facilitate collaborative analytics are far and few between. In addition, there is a shift towards mobile crisis mapping analysis. That is, leveraging mobile technologies to carry out analysis such as Folksomaps and Cartagen.

Crisis Mapping Visualization (CMV) seeks to visualize data in such a way that patterns are identifiable through visual analysis, i.e., using the human eye. For example, patterns may be discernible at one spatial and/or temporal scale, but not at another. Or patterns may not appear using 2D visualization but instead using 3D, like GeoTime. Varying the speed of data animation over time may also shed light on certain patterns. More on visualization here and here.

Crisis Mapping Analytics (CMA) is GIS analysis applied to crisis data. This approach draws on applied geo-statistics and spatial econometrics to identify crisis patterns otherwise hidden to the human eye. This includes Exploratory Spatial Data Analysis (ESDA). A good example of crisis mapping analytics is HunchLab and other crime mapping analysis platforms like GeoSurveillance.

Crisis Map Modeling (CMM) combines GIS analysis with agent-based modeling. See this example published in Science. While the conclusions of the article are suspect, the general approach highlights the purpose of crisis map modeling. The point is to use empirical data to simulate different scenarios using agent-based models. My colleague Nils Wiedmann is doing some of the most interesting work in this area.

Crisis Mapping Response

Like early warning, there is little point in doing crisis mapping if it is not connected to strategic and/or operational response. There are three principle components of crisis mapping response: (1) Crisis Map Dissemination, (2) Crisis Map Decision Support, and (3) Crisis Map Monitoring and Evaluation.

Crisis Map Dissemination (CMD) seeks to disseminate maps and/or share information provided by maps. Maps can be shared in hard copy format, such as with Walking Papers. They can also be shared electronically and the underlying data synchronized using Mesh4X. Another approach is crowdfeeding, where indicator alerts are subscribed to via email or SMS.

Crisis Map Decision Support (CMDS) leverages decision-support tools specifically for crisis mapping response. This approach entails the use of interactive mapping platforms that users can employ to query crisis data. There is thus a strong link with crisis mapping analysis since the decision process is informed by the patterns identified using crisis mapping analytics. In other words, the point is to identify patterns so we can amplify, mitigate or change them. It is vital that crisis map decision support platforms have well designed user interfaces.

Crisis Map Monitoring and Evaluation (CMME) combines crisis mapping with monitoring and evaluation (M&E) to produce basemaps (baselines mapped in space and time). This approach seeks to identify project impact or lack thereof by comparing basemaps with new data being collected throughout the project cycle. More information on this approach is available here.

I’d be grateful for feedback on this proposed taxonomy.

Patrick Philippe Meier

18 responses to “Proposing the Field of Crisis Mapping

  1. Pingback: Brain Off » Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, Next. And also wine. :: Mikel Maron :: Building Digital Technology for Our Planet

  2. Patrick-
    I wasn’t if you saw Mikel’s latest entry re crisis mapping:

  3. Sorry, as you can tell it is Monday and the coffee is wearing off. I didn’t finish my thought and I didn’t even bother to type a full sentence. 😉

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  8. The area of “Mobile Crisis Mapping (MCM)” seems to be include disparate items, specifically crowd sourcing with GPS seems to more naturally fall under “Participatory Crisis Mapping (PCM)”, while satellite imagery and unmanned aerial vehicles are very different technologies that have more in common with tsunami warning systems, which are definitely not mobile. Perhaps these should be classified as “remote sensory crisis mapping”.

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