My Introductory Remarks at ICCM 2010

Below is the “speech” I gave to open the 2010 International Conference on Crisis Mapping (ICCM 2010) in Boston on October 1, 2010.


Welcome the 2010 International Conference on Crisis Mapping! This is truly a remarkable turnout, thank you for making the time to join us today. We had expected some 200 participants to show up, but we got double. If you’re new to the Crisis Mappers Network, welcome to the team! It’s really great to have you and we very much look forward to your contributions. If you were with us for last year’s conference, it’s wonderful to have you back after what has certainly been a defining year for Crisis Mapping.

Indeed, the Crisis Mappers Network has grown substantially since we last met. We now have close to 1,000 members in over 30 countries. There are more than 100 organizations represented in this auditorium today. The Crisis Mappers website itself has been accessed from no fewer than 104 countries. The purpose of this international network is to catalyze communication, collaboration and partnerships between members. Our mission is to advance the study and practice of Crisis Mapping worldwide. We do this by organizing the annual International Conference on Crisis Mapping, which brings together high level policymakers, seasoned humanitarian and human rights practitioners, the technology community including both private sector and nonprofit groups, and the academic, research community.

We also pursue our mission by providing our members with an active social networking platform,, where they can blog, engage in discussion forums, watch a unique set of video presentations on crisis mapping projects and contribute to regular webinars. In addition, the Crisis Mappers Network provides an active list-serve for members to communicate and collaborate, especially during crises.

Indeed, this list-serve, the Crisis Mappers Google Group, played a pivotal role in the hours, days and weeks following the earthquake in Haiti. Members of the Network exchanged thousands of emails on this list-serve, sharing critical information ranging from satellite imagery and GIS data to contact lists for key organizations and personnel, important logistics data, locations of IDP camps, and so on. I highly recommend reading this study conducted by my colleague Jen Ziemke which provides hundreds upon hundreds of detailed examples on exactly how members of this network collaborated in the response.

The disaster response to Haiti was indeed unprecedented in a number of ways. One was the number of technology platforms deployed (many from scratch) in the wake of the disaster. Another distinctive element was the volunteer network that sprung into action on a range of projects in collaboration with members of the Crisis Mappers Network. In fact, hundreds of students from this University, The Fletcher School plus undergraduate students, were actively involved in the response. And many of them are here with us in this auditorium today.

In addition, we know that some 2,000 volunteers in about 40 countries were also engaged in the Crisis Mapping efforts, many of them from the Haitian Diaspora. None of these volunteers were ever physically in Haiti but they were still an important part of the operational response thanks to the open collaborative networks they created and the free, open source mapping technologies they used.

The unprecedented nature of this response represents an important opportunity.  At the same time, because many aspects of the response to Haiti were unprecedented, this also means they were necessarily reactive, ad hoc and unprepared. Yet the response nevertheless demonstrated a clear potential. It is now up to the members of this network to grab the opportunity that exists and turn this potential into actuality. The political will is there on all sides to collaborate and learn from each other. The technology community is becoming a more important actor in both the humanitarian and human rights space. The volunteer networks are not new per se but the collaboration between dedicated volunteers and the technology community has certainly created a number of new opportunities for disaster response and beyond.

So the question now is, how do we take these informal, distributed and ad hoc networks and allow them to interface effectively and in a timely way with structured humanitarian organizations? Some colleagues and I believe that one way to do so is by setting up a Standby Crisis Mappers Task Force composed of skilled and experienced volunteers and humanitarian professionals who have been engaged in previous Crisis Mapping operations. We hope that other professional volunteer communities like some friends at CrisisCommons who are interested in mapping will help us to strengthen this initiative.

Now, it is important to remember that Haiti was and remains an outlier. We were indeed very lucky in that information security and government oversight played a limited role. It truly was an open effort. Contrast this to the challenges of crisis mapping in places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Burma, Liberia or the Sudan. It is these challenges that we must also address at this International Conference on Crisis Mapping. So as we plan for the future, we can and should be inspired by Haiti but we must be careful not to use the response to Haiti as the only model for crisis mapping. Indeed, the title of this year’s conference is Haiti and Beyond.

And this is why senior representatives of many important humanitarian organizations are here today because they want to engage the new opportunities that do exist and they understand the challenges that necessarily come with exploring new territory. Key members of the technology community are also here because they too want to engage and learn how to become more effective and reliable partners in the humanitarian space. Seasoned humanitarian and human rights practitioners are also in the auditorium, and many of them participated in yesterday’s Crisis Mapping Training Session because they recognize the value of expanding their own skill set to leverage the new technologies that are coming online.

Some of the key volunteers from the responses to Haiti, Chile and Pakistan are also here because they are committed to formalizing and professionalizing their role in this more multipolar system. And guess what? A number of these volunteers were already planning to pursue a career in the humanitarian space before Haiti. And others, who weren’t planning to beforehand, are now inspired to pursue a career path in this sector. So these volunteer networks are looking to the humanitarian community for mentorship and guidance.

Finally, the research community and media are both here today as well because they are looking for ways to bring this innovation and inspiration back into the classroom and to a broader audience.

So I think you’ll agree with me when I say that we have many of the right people here in the room today to catalyze the new collaboration and partnerships that will enable all of us to be more adaptive and effective actors in the humanitarian space. Indeed, the opportunity is well within our grasp.

And this opportunity would clearly not be possible were it not for every single one of you choosing to be present here in this auditorium right now. So thank you once again for your time and for joining us. You are the conference. And this opportunity would certainly not be possible without the tremendous sponsorship support that the Crisis Mappers Network has received for this annual Conference on Crisis Mapping. Let me then take this opportunity to thank our following friends: Humanity United, the Knight Foundation, the Open Society Institute, the US Institute of Peace, ESRI, Google, the Hitachi Center at the Fletcher School, Ushahidi, the World Bank, the Human Security Institute at the Fletcher School, the Institute for Global Leadership at Tufts University, the GIS Center at Tufts University and last but not least, GeoTime. So if you see any of our friends during the breaks today, please do take a moment to thank them in person.

Like last year, the co-organizing institutions for the Crisis Mapping Conference are the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) and John Carrol University. Many, many thanks indeed to both. I would also like to thank Jen Ziemke, my fellow co-organizer for the conference. This conference series would not exist had Jen not actually suggested the idea 3 years ago. So Jen, thank you very much for a brilliant idea! Finally, I want to express my huge gratitude to all our phenomenal volunteers who have once again gone above and beyond to save the day. You all know who you are, thank you very very much.

And now on with the show! We have a very interesting series of presentations lined up for you this morning and afternoon. We’ll kick off shortly with the first session of Ignite Talks. These talks are 5 minutes a piece with 20 powerpoint slides that automatically forward every 15 seconds. And there’s no stopping! This should definitely be very entertaining or a complete mess. The first session will focus primarily on Haiti and then shift to broader issues. The second session of Ignite Talks, which are scheduled for this afternoon, will look at the opportunities and challenges of crisis mapping beyond Haiti.

In between these Ignite sessions, we will have plenty of breaks for you to network with each other and engage the speakers in person.

We will also have some special remarks from UN Assistant Secretary General Dr. Choi who is the first Chief Information Technology Officer for the United Nations Secretariat. Our Keynote speaker this year is Mr. Kurt Jean-Charles, the CEO of Solutions, a Haitian software company that was directly involved in the disaster response following the earthquake. My colleague Jen Ziemke will introduce both of our distinguished guests more formally before their presentations.

Finally, we have an exciting display of projects and technologies for you at this year’s Technology and Analysis Fair which will kick off this afternoon following the second session of Ignite Talks. This will be a great opportunity for us to learn more about new crisis mapping technologies and projects.

If you plan to Tweet and/or blog about the presentations today, please do and please use the hashtag “ICCM10” And feel free to use the website to publish or cross post your blog posts, to chat live about the presentations, and so on.

Thanks very much for listening.

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