The Horn of Africa and the Crisis Mapping Community

“… the Horn of Africa famine and the associated crises gravely affecting millions of people has not animated the crisis-mapping community and its online platforms to the extent of post-Haiti or, more recently, following the 2011 earthquake in Japan.”

I’m somewhat concerned by the phrasing of this statement, which comes from this recent article published by ICT4Peace. Perhaps the author is simply unaware of the repeated offers made by the crisis mapping community to provide crisis mapping solutions, mobile information collection platforms, short codes, call center services, etc., to several humanitarian organizations including UN OCHA, UNDP and WFP over the past three months.

In the case of OCHA, the team in Somalia replied that they had everything under control. In terms of UNDP, the colleagues we spoke with simply did/do not have the capacity, time or skill-set to leverage new crisis mapping solutions to improve their situational awareness or better communicate with disaster affected comm-unities. And WFP explained that lack of access rather than information was the most pressing challenge they were facing (at least two months ago), an issue echoed by two other humanitarian organizations.

This excellent report by Internews details the complete humanitarian tech-nology failure in Dadaab refugee camp and underscores how limited and behind some humanitarian organizations still are vis-a-vis the prioritization of “new” in-formation and communication technologies (ICTs) to improve humanitarian response and the lives of refugees in crisis situations. These organizations require support and core funding to “upgrade”. Throwing crisis mapping technologies at the problem is not going to solve many problems if the under-lying humanitarian mechanisms are not in place to leverage these solutions.

This is not a criticism of humanitarian organizations but rather hard reality. I’ve had numerous conversations with both technology and humanitarian colleagues over the past three months about how to reach for low hanging fruits and catalyze quick-wins with even the most minimal ICT interventions. But as is often the case, the humanitarian community is understandably overwhelmed and genu-inely trying to do the best they can given the very difficult circumstances. Indeed, Somalia presents a host of obvious challenges and risks that were not present in either Haiti or Japan. (Incidentally, only a fraction of the crisis mapping commu-nity was involved in Japan compared to overall efforts in Somalia).

Perhaps ICT4Peace is also unaware that some colleagues and I spent many long days and nights in August and September preparing the launch of a live crisis map for Somalia, which ESRI, Google, Nethope and several other groups provided critical input on. See my blog post on this initiative here. But the project was torpedoed by a humanitarian organization that was worried about the conse-quences of empowering the Somali Diaspora, i.e., that they would become more critical of the US government’s perceived inaction as a result of the information they collected—a consequence I personally would have championed as an indica-tor of success.

Maybe ICT4Peace is also unaware that no humanitarian organization formally requested the activation of the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) in August. That said, the SBTF did engage in this pilot project to crowdsource the geo-tagging of shelters in Somalia in September as a simple trial run. Since then, the SBTF has officially partnered with UNHCR and the Joint Research Center (JRC) to geo-tag IDP camps in specific regions in Somalia next month. Digital Globe is a formal partner in this project, as is Tomnod. Incidentally, JRC is co-hosting this year’s International Conference of Crisis Mappers (ICCM 2011).

ICT4Peace is perhaps also not aware of a joint project between Ushahidi and UN OCHA Kenya to provide crisis mapping support, or of recent conversations with Al Jazeera, Souktel, the Virgin Group, K’naan, PopTech, CeaseFire, PeaceTXT, GSMA, DevSeed and others on implementing crisis mapping and SMS solutions for Somalia. In addition, the Humanitarian Open Street Map Team (HOT) has been busy improving the data for Somalia and the only reason they haven’t been able to go full throttles forward is because of data licensing issues beyond their control. Colleagues from the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) have also been offering their help where and when they can.

In sum, to say that the crisis mapping community has not been as “animated” in response to the crisis in the Horn is misleading and rather unfortunate given that ICT4Peace is co-hosting this year’s International Conference of Crisis Mappers (ICCM 2011). All ICT4Peace had to do was to send one simple email to the membership to get all the above information (and likely more). Just because these efforts are not captured on CNN or on the front pages of the UN Chronicle does not mean that there haven’t been numerous ongoing efforts behind the scenes by dozens of different partners and members of the crisis mapping community.

I would therefore not be so quick to dismiss the perceived inaction of this comm-unity. I would also not make an automatic assumption that crisis mapping platforms and mobile technology solutions will always be “easy” or feasible to deploy in every context, especially if this is attempted reactively in the middle of a complex humanitarian crisis. Both Haiti and Japan provided permissive envi-ronments, unlike recent crisis mapping projects in Libya, Egypt and the Sudan which present serious security challenges. Finally, if direct offers of support by the crisis mapping community are not leveraged by field-based humanitarian organizations, then how exactly is said crisis mapping community supposed to be more animated?

11 responses to “The Horn of Africa and the Crisis Mapping Community

  1. The lack of engagement appears to be from the side of humanitarian organisations, particularly the large, international NGOs who appear to be either unaware, unwilling or unable to put some resources into understanding the potential that crisis mapping represents for their humanitarian operations. Perhaps the conference in Geneva and subsequent meetings will begin to encourage more engagement and therefore more activation of the standby task force by the operational humanitarian NGOs!

  2. Just to expand a bit from the UN-OCHA side. The offer of the SBTF was shared with all of the OCHA offices in the Horn of Africa region. At the time, the response was that they felt the existing information networks and coordination structures would be sufficient to deal with the response. The OCHA Information Management Officers are aware of the offer and will [hopefully] engage when they feel it is appropriate (as UN-OCHA Kenya is doing).

    We should also be aware that, with the floods in SE Asia, UN-OCHA has already put a few key contacts on alert that, if support is required, we may request such support. This informal notification was given to the leaders of the Humanitarian Standby Task Force [which is being discussed/developed as part of the Communities of Interest].

  3. Excellent article Patrick—and you bring up key issues regarding engagement of NGO’s as well as the global governance organizations—bureaucratic and institutional issues that have been at the heart of commentaries and critiques for—unfortunately—years!

    I would also like to add a caveat—-there is a fundamental difference from what we see going on in the Horn of Africa as a “crisis” and what was experienced in Japan, Haiti and other “natural” disasters. The crisis in the Horn of Africa may be “blamed” on an environmental crisis, but the reality is that it is a POLITICAL crisis of human origin that has been brewing for years. The tragedy is that we can—and have—“mapped” this using long term trend mapping as we have seen the events—-evolving over time.

    Crisismappers have to be there I believe as the skills and technologies are essential to deal with current issues and the immediate contexts….Crisismappers are only the latest of the many wonderful ways that assistance could have been (or CAN BE) used to help other humans….we can only keep working to make that change in decision making.

    best, Jerri

  4. Thanks for the article. Perhaps, it will be a great idea to have you attend a conference that I am planning and have you further discuss efforts you initiated for the Horn of Africa. I believe the information you can share can be used as the lessons learned portion of this conference on Food security and porous borders in the Horn of Africa. Most of the targeted audience will be from the NGO community and they can increase their knowledge on what was done on your end. Please let me know, if this is feasible?
    I tip my hat to the crisis mapping community! I strongly believe that the African community is not well versed on the amount of work your group does for the continent and I believe that addressing this at the conference will be an eye opener.

    Very best,

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  6. Pingback: Microtasking Advocacy and Humanitarian Response in Somalia | iRevolution

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