Tag Archives: mapping

Google+ for Crowdsourcing Crisis Information, Crisis Mapping and Disaster Response

Facebook is increasingly used to crowdsource crisis information and response, as is Twitter. So is it just a matter of time until we see similar use cases with Google+? Another question I have is whether such uses cases will simply reflect more of the same or whether we’ll see new, unexpected applications and dynamics? Of course, it may be premature to entertain the role that Google+ might play in disaster response just days after it’s private beta launch, but the company seems fully committed to making  this new venture succeed. Entertain-ing how Google+ (G+) might be used as a humanitarian technology thus seems worthwhile.

The fact that G+ is open and searchable is probably one of the starkest differences with the walled-garden that is Facebook; that, and their Data Liberation policy. This will make activity on G+ relatively easier to find—Google is the King of Search, after all. This openness will render serendipity and synergies more likely.

The much talked about “Circles” feature is also very appealing for the kind of organic and collaborative crowdsourcing work that we see emerging following a crisis. Think about these “Circles” not only as networks but also as “honeycombs” for “flash” projects—i.e., short-term and temporary—very much along the lines that Skype is used for live collaborative crisis mapping operations.

Google+’s new Hangout feature could also be used instead of Skype chat and video, with the advantage of having multi-person video-conferencing. With a little more work, the Sparks feature could facilitate media monitoring—an important component of live crisis mapping. And then there’s Google+ mobile, which is accessible on most phones with a browser and already includes a “check-in” feature as well as geo-referenced status updates. The native app for the Android is already available and the iPhone app is coming soon.

Clicking on my status update above, produces the Google Maps page below. What’s particularly telling about this is how “underwhelming” the use of Google Maps currently is within G+.  There’s no doubt this will change dramatically as G+ evolves. The Google+ team has noted that they already have dozens of new features ready to be rolled out in the coming months. So expect G+ to make full use of Google’s formidable presence on the Geo Web—think MapMaker+ and Earth Engine+. This could be a big plus for live crowdsourced crisis mapping, especially of the multimedia kind.

One stark difference with Facebook’s status updates and check-in’s is that G+ allows you to decide which Circles (or networks of contacts) to share your updates and check-in’s with. This is an important difference that could allow for more efficient information sharing in near real-time. You could set up your Circles as different teams, perhaps even along UN Cluster lines.

As the G+ mobile website reveals, the team will also be integrating SMS, which is definitely key for crisis response. I imagine there will also be a way to connect your Twitter feed with Google+ in the near future. This will make G+ even more compelling as a mobile humanitarian technology platform. In addition, I expect there are also plans to integrate Google News, Google Reader, Google Groups, Google Docs and Google Translate with G+. GMail, YouTube and Picasa are already integrated.

One feature that will be important for humanitarian applications is offline functionality. Google Reader and GMail already have this feature (Google Gears), which I imagine could be added to G+’s Stream and perhaps eventually with Google Maps? In addition, if Google can provide customizable uses of G+, then this could also make the new platform more compelling for humanitarian organizations, e.g., if OCHA could have their own G+ (“iG+”) by customizing and branding their G+ interface; much like the flexibility afforded by the Ning platform. One first step in that direction might be to offer a range of “themes” for G+, just like Google does with GMail.

Finally, the ability to develop third party apps for G+ could be a big win. Think of a G+ store (in contrast to an App Store). I’d love to see a G+ app for Ushahidi and OSM, for example.

If successful, G+ could be the best example of “What Technology Wants” to date. G+ is convergence technology par excellence. It is a hub that connects many of Google’s excellent products and from the looks of it, the G+ team is just getting warmed up with the converging.

I’d love to hear from others who are also brainstorming about possible applications of Google+ in the humanitarian space. Am I off on any of the ideas above? What am I missing? Maybe we could set up a Google+ 4 Disaster Response Circle and get on Hangout to brainstorm together?

A List of Completely Wrong Assumptions About Technology Use in Emerging Economies

I’ve spent the past week at the iLab in Liberia and got what I came for: an updated reality check on the limitations of technology adoption in developing countries. Below are some of the assumptions that I took for granted. They’re perfectly obvious in hindsight and I’m annoyed at myself for not having realized their obviousness sooner. I’d be very interested in hearing from others about these and reading their lists. This need not be limited to one particular sector like ICT for Development (ICT4D) or Mobile Health (mHealth). Many of these assumptions have repercussions across multiple disciplines.

The following examples come from conversations with my colleague Kate Cummings who directs Ushahidi Liberia and the iLab here in Monrovia. She and her truly outstanding team—Kpetermeni Siakor, Carter Draper, Luther Jeke and Anthony Kamah—spearheaded a number of excellent training workshops over the past few days. At one point we began discussing the reasons for the limited use of SMS in Liberia. There are the usual and obvious reasons. But the one hurdle I had not expected to hear was Nokia’s predictive text functionality. This feature is incredibly helpful since the mobile phone basically guesses which words you’re trying to write so you don’t have to type every single letter.

But as soon as she pointed out how confusing this can be, I immediately understood what she meant. If I had never seen or been warned about this feature before, I’d honestly think the phone was broken. It would really be impossible to type with. I’d get frustrated and give up (the tiny screen further adds to the frustration). And if I was new to mobile phones, it wouldn’t be obvious how to switch that feature off either. (There are several tutorials online on how to use the predictive text feature and how to turn it off, which clearly proves they’re not intuitive).

In one of the training workshops we just had, I was explaining what Walking Papers was about and how it might be useful in Liberia. So I showed the example below and continued talking. But Kate jumped in and asked participants: “What do you see in this picture? Do you see the trees, the little roads?” She pointed at the features as she described the individual shapes. This is when it dawned on me that there is absolutely nothing inherently intuitive about satellite images. Most people on this planet have not been on an airplane or a tall building. So why would a bird’s eye view of their village be anything remotely recognizable? I really kicked myself on that one. So I’ll write it again: there is nothing intuitive about satellite imagery. Nor is there anything intuitive about GPS and the existence of a latitude and longitude coordinate system.

Kate went on to explain that this kind of picture is what you would see if you were flying high like a bird. That was the way I should have introduced the image but I had taken it completely for granted that satellite imagery was self-explanatory when it simply isn’t. In further conversations with Kate, she explained that they too had made that assumption early on when trying to introduce the in’s and out’s of the Ushahidi platform. They quickly realized that they had to rethink their approach and decided to provide introductory courses on Google Maps instead.

More wrong assumptions revealed themselves during the workshpos. For example, the “+” and “-” markers on Google Map are not intuitive either nor is the concept of zooming in and out. How are you supposed to understand that pressing these buttons still shows the same map but at a different scale and not an entirely different picture instead? Again, when I took a moment to think about this, I realized how completely confusing that could be. And again I kicked myself. But contrast this to an entirely different setting, San Francisco, where some friends recently told me how their five year old went up to a framed picture in their living room and started pinching at it with his fingers, the exact same gestures one would use on an iPhone to zoom in and out of a picture. “Broken, broken” is all the five year old said after that disappointing experience.

The final example actually comes from Haiti where my colleague Chrissy Martin is one of the main drivers behind the Digicel Group’s mobile banking efforts in the country. There were of course a number of expected challenges on the road to launching Haiti’s first successful mobile banking service, TchoTcho Mobile. The hurdle that I had not expected, however, had to do with the pin code. To use the service, you would enter your own personal pin number on your mobile phone in order to access your account. Seems perfectly straight forward. But it really isn’t.

The concept of a pin number is one that many of us take completely for granted. But the idea is often foreign to many would-be users of mobile banking services and not just in Haiti. Think about it: all one has to do to access all my money is to simply enter four numbers on my phone. That does genuinely sound crazy to me at a certain level. Granted, if you guess the pin wrong three times, the phone gets blocked and you have to call TchoTcho’s customer service. But still, I can understand the initial hesitation that many users had. When I asked Chrissy how they overcame the hurdle, her answer was simply this: training. It takes time for users to begin trusting a completely new technology.

So those are some of the assumptions I’ve gotten wrong. I’d be grateful if readers could share theirs as there must be plenty of other assumptions I’m making which don’t fit reality. Incidentally, I realize that emerging economies vary widely in technology diffusion and adoption—not to mention sub-nationally as well. This is why having the iLab in Liberia is so important. Identifying which assumptions are wrong in more challenging environments is really important if our goal is to use technology to help contribute meaningfully to a community’s empowerment, development and independence.

From Grassroots Mapping to One Satellite Per Child

There were some amazing presentations at Where 2.0, but for me personally, Jeffrey Warren’s talk on Community-based Grassroots Mapping with Balloons and Kites in Lima was the most exciting. Jeffrey and his colleagues were inspired by two MIT undergraduate students who “launched a digital camera into near-space to take photographs of the earth from high up above.”

Jeff and colleague traveled to Lima in January 2010 to work with children and adults from several communities to bring a truly participatory (and fun!) approach to mapping.

Seeking to invert the traditional power structure of cartography, the grassroots mappers used helium balloons and kites to loft their own “community satellites” made with inexpensive digital cameras. The resulting images, which are owned by the residents, are georeferenced and stitched into maps which are 100x higher resolution that those offered by Google, at extremely low cost.

In some cases these maps may be used to support residents’ claims to land title. By creating open-source tools to include everyday people in exploring and defining their own geography, we hopes to enable a diverse set of alternative agendas and practices, and to emphasize the fundamentally narrative and subjective aspects of mapping over its use as a medium of control.

Once several pictures have been taken, they can be “stitched together” to form a map like the one below. The stitching can be done by hand or using this neat tool.

All it takes is $100 for the equipment below. In fact, you could even use $1.30 trash bags instead to reduce the cost. I highly recommend looking through this fun illustrated guide.

I also like how the communities used tracing paper to annotate the maps they produced from the balloons. This is something I had wanted to do for this community mapping project in the Sudan.

I absolutely love this project. It’s easy, cheap, participatory, empowering and fun. Jeff and company are democratizing aerial mapping. I’d love to see this approach take off all over the world and would like to find some use cases in the humanitarian context, e.g., in post-disaster reconstruction and development. Imagine if local communities in Haiti could use balloon mapping to hold the development community accountable for the way their own country is being rebuilt. This approach can democratize urban planning in post-disaster environments.

Do check out the Grassroots Mapping website. You can also sign up for the group’s mailing list. If you’re in the Boston area, you may want to join Jeffrey and friends for some balloon mapping excercises. I definitely will! In the meantime, check out Jeff’s Ignite Talk from the 2009 CrisisMappers Conference.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Crowdsourcing for Peace Mapping

Lynda Gratton at the London Business School gave one of the best Keynote speeches that I’ve heard all year. Her talk was a tour de force on how to catalyze innovation and one of her core recommendations really hit home for me: “If you really want to be at the cutting edge of innovation, then you better make sure that 20% of your team is under the age of 27.” Lynda upholds this principle in all her business ventures.

I find this absolutely brilliant, which explains why I prefer teaching undergraduate seminars and why I always try to keep in touch with former students. Without fail, they continue to be an invaluable source of inspiration and innovative thinking.

A former student of mine, Adam White, recently introduced me to another undergraduate student at Tufts University, Rachel Brown. Rachel is a perfect example of why I value interacting with bright young minds. She wants to return to Kenya next year to identify and connect local peace initiatives in Nairobi in preparation for the 2012 elections.

Rachel was inspired by the story of Solo 7, a Kenyan graffiti artist in Kibera who drew messages of peace throughout the slum as a way to prevent violence from escalating shortly after the elections. “Imagine,” she said, “if we could identify all the Solo 7’s of Nairobi, all the individuals and local communities engaged in promoting peace.”

I understood at once why Adam recommended I meet with Rachel: Ushahidi.

I immediately told Rachel about Ushahidi, a free and open source platform that uses crowdsourcing to map crisis information. I suggested she consider using the platform to crowdsource and map local peace initiatives across Kenya, not just Nairobi. I’ve been so focused on crisis mapping that I’ve completely ignored my previous work in the field of conflict early warning. An integral part of this field is to monitor indicators of conflict and cooperation.

There are always pockets of cooperation no matter how dire a conflict is. Even in Nazi Germany and the Rwandan genocide we find numerous stories of people risking their lives to save others. The fact is that most people, most of the time in most places choose cooperation over conflict. If that weren’t the case, we’d be living in state of total war as described by Clausewitz.

If we only monitor indicators of war and violence, then that’s all we’ll see. Our crisis maps only depict a small part of reality. It is incredibly important that we also map indicators of peace and cooperation. By identifying the positive initiatives that exist before and during a crisis, we automatically identify multiple entry points for intervention and a host of options for conflict prevention. If we only map conflict, then we may well identify where most of the conflict is taking place, but we won’t necessarily know who in the area might be best placed to intervene.

Documenting peace and cooperation also has positive psychological effects. How often do we lament the fact that the only kind of news available in the media is bad news? We turn on CNN or BBC and there’s bad news—sometimes breaking news of bad news. It’s easy to get depressed and to assume that only bad things happen. But violence is actually very rare statistically speaking. The problem is that we don’t systematically document peace, which means that our perceptions are completely skewed.

Take the following anecdote, which occurred to me several years ago when I taught my first undergraduate course on conflict early warning systems. I was trying to describe the important psychological effects of documenting peace and cooperation by using the example of the London underground (subway).

If you’ve been to London, you’ve probably experienced the frequent problems and delays with the underground system. And like most other subway systems, announcements are made to inform passengers of annoying delays and whatnot. But unlike other subway systems I’ve used, the London underground also makes announcements to let passengers know that all lines are currently running on time.

Now lets take this principle and apply it to Rachel’s project proposal combined with Ushahidi. Imagine if she were to promote the crowdsourcing of local peace initiatives all across Kenya. She could work with national and local media to get the word out. Individuals could send text messages to report what kinds of peace activities they are involved in.

This would allow Rachel and others to follow up on select text messages to learn more about each activity. In fact, she could use Ushahidi’s customizable reporting forms to ask individuals texting in information to elaborate on their initiatives. Rachel wants to commit no less than a year to this project, which should give her and colleagues plenty of time to map hundreds of local peace initiatives across Kenya.

Just imagine a map covered with hundreds of doves or peace dots representing local peace initiatives? What a powerful image. The Peace Map would be public, so that anyone with Internet access could learn about the hundreds of different peace initiatives in Kenya. Kenyan peace activists themselves could make use of this map to learn about creative approaches to conflict prevention and conflict management. They could use Ushashidi’s subscription feature to receive automatic updates when a new peace project is reported in their neighborhood, town or province.

When peace activists (and anyone else, for that matter) find peace projects they like on Ushahidi’s Peace Map, they can “befriend” that project, much like the friend feature in Facebook. That way they can receive updates from a particular project via email, SMS or even Twitter. These updates could include information on how to get involved. When two projects (or two individuals) are connected this way, Ushahidi could depict the link on the map with a line connecting the two nodes.

Imagine if this Peace Map were then shown on national television in the lead up to the elections. Not only would there be hundreds of peace dots representing individual peace efforts, but many of these would be linked, depicting a densely connected peace network.

The map could also be printed in Kenya’s national and local newspapers. I think a Peace Map of Kenya would send a powerful message that Kenyans want peace and won’t stand for a repeat of the 2007 post-election violence. When the elections do happen, this Peace Map could be used operationally to quickly respond to any signs of escalating tensions.

Rachel could use the Peace Map to crowdsource reports of any election violence that might take place. Local peace activists could use Ushahidi’s subscription feature to receive alerts of violent events taking place in their immediate vicinity. They would receive these via email and/or SMS in near real-time.

This could allow peace activists to mobilize and quickly respond to escalating signs of violence, especially if preparedness measures and contingency plans already in place. This is what I call fourth generation conflict early warning and early response (4G). See this blog post for more on 4G systems. This is where The Third Side framework for conflict resolution meets the power of new technology platforms like Ushahidi.

It is when I meet inspiring students like Rachel that I wish I were rich so I could just write checks to turn innovative ideas into reality. The next best thing I can do is to work with Rachel and her undergraduate friends to write up a strong proposal. So if you want to get involved or you know a donor, foundation or a philanthropist who might be interested in funding Rachel’s project, please do email me so I can put you directly in touch with her: Patrick@iRevolution.net.

In the meantime, if you’re about to start a project, remember Lynda’s rule of thumb: make sure 20% of your team is under 27. You won’t regret it.

Patrick Philippe Meier

The Biggest Problem with “Crisis Maps”

I enjoy thinking about the different analogies one can use to describe crisis mapping. I’ve likened crisis mapping to the Nascza Lines here and to cymatics here, for example. In a recent interview with Reuters/Alertnet (published here), I used the following analogy:

“Crisis mapping is to the humanitarian space what x-rays are to emergency rooms.”

I wanted to find an analogy that would steer clear of technical jargon and capture the public’s imagination. I thought through several analogies before the interview. For example, I debated using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) as analogy instead of x-rays since, well, it’s a more accurate comparison.

Why?

Have a look at the first minute of this rather amusing video, which first shows some x-ray pictures and then MRI scans.

MRI scans provide “quantitative, real-time, thermal images of the treated area” (1). All x-rays do is display static, albeit still useful, information. It’s a bit like comparing today’s high-speed digital video cameras with the cameras of bygone days that produced black and white photographs.

I thought about these analogies again this evening while walking home from MIT’s conference on data visualization. That’s when something very obvious dawned on me. The biggest problem with crisis maps is the word “maps”. The majority of the world’s population including myself associate maps with printed maps—no thanks to pirates.

The term “animated map” almost seems like an oxymoron, much like the word “airbus” must have come across when the company was founded 40 years ago. For you fellow Harry Potter fans, perhaps the best way to describe what I’m trying to convey is by referring to The Daily Prophet, the magical newspaper whose articles include moving pictures. Or perhaps the magical Marauder’s map which tracks the movement of students and teachers at Hogwarts in real-time.

Source: newlaunches.com

Source: newlaunches.com

Fictional protagonists aside, Albert Einstein was spot on when he wrote:

Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

We know a lot about maps but if we were to play the word association game we’d likely come up with static descriptions rather than words associated with moving pictures. The time slider feature on Google Earth is perhaps starting to shift people’s conception of maps. Hans Rosling‘s work with Gapminder is also stirring our imagination since he talks about time series data much like a sports commentator describes a horse race (see his really neat TED talk here).

source: google earth

source: google earth

But we’re even more trapped by our archaic conception of maps than we realize. Playing the word association game with the word “map” may conjure Google Earth’s time slider for a few neogeographers, but I doubt that anyone would blurt out “3D!” for example. And yet, that’s what some of us crisis mappers are increasingly thinking about.

Google invited me to participate in a full-day workshop at their DC office last week and sure enough they told us to expect that all structures (e.g., buildings, mountains) on Google Earth would be rendered in 3D within about 2 years. The team is looking to integrate Mapmaker, My Maps, and Sketch-Up with Google Earth. And we already know they have a great flight simulator.

Source: gizmodo

Source: gizmodo

Now compare the above screenshot of Google Earth with a screenshot of Simcity 4 below. And then, of course, there’s also Second Life, and more recently live video integrated into Google Earth.

SimCity4

In the meantime, the most accurate 3D map of any city on Earth has just been created using very high resolution lasers—some 7 million individual points of light to be exact. You could call this the best MRI of a terrestrial city yet!

I’ve already blogged about crisis maps evolving into 3D virtual worlds with live data feeds and agent-based models for scenario development, simulation and forecasting:

  • 3D Crisis Mapping for Disaster Simulation Training (link)
  • GeoTime: Visual Crisis Mapping in 3D (link)

All these systems are part of the evolving info webs I recently blogged about. But the italicized attributes above hardly come to mind when we hear the word map. And I think this is biggest problem with the term “crisis maps.” Perhaps we should come up with an entirely new term. But coming back to my interview with Reuters/Alertnet, a new more accurate term would simply add more technical jargon and definitely lose the public’s imagination (and mine with it).

So I’ve got an alternative “solution” … maybe. We keep the word map, or rather M.A.P.S. Yes, that’s right “Crisis MAPS.” All we need now is to be as creative as InSTEDD and find a way to fit this acronym with something sensible.

So how’s this?

Crisis MAPS = Crisis Movies and Platform Simulations

Patrick Philippe Meier

The Biggest Problem with “Crisis Maps”

I enjoy thinking about the different analogies one can use to describe crisis mapping. I’ve likened crisis mapping to the Nascza Lines here and to cymatics here, for example. In a recent interview with Reuters/Alertnet (published here), I used the following analogy:

“Crisis mapping is to the humanitarian space what x-rays are to emergency rooms.”

I wanted to find an analogy that would steer clear of technical jargon and capture the public’s imagination. I thought through several analogies before the interview. For example, I debated using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) as analogy instead of x-rays since, well, it’s a more accurate comparison.

Why?

Have a look at the first minute of this rather amusing video, which first shows some x-ray pictures and then MRI scans.

MRI scans provide “quantitative, real-time, thermal images of the treated area” (1). All x-rays do is display static, albeit still useful, information. It’s a bit like comparing today’s high-speed digital video cameras with the cameras of bygone days that produced black and white photographs.

I thought about these analogies again this evening while walking home from MIT’s conference on data visualization. That’s when something very obvious dawned on me. The biggest problem with crisis maps is the word “maps”. The majority of the world’s population including myself associate maps with printed maps—no thanks to pirates.

Source: artfiles.art.com

Source: artfiles.art.com

The term “animated map” almost seems like an oxymoron, much like the word “airbus” must have come across when the company was founded 40 years ago. For you fellow Harry Potter fans, perhaps the best way to describe what I’m trying to convey is by referring to The Daily Prophet, the magical newspaper whose articles include moving pictures. Or perhaps the magical Marauder’s map which tracks the movement of students and teachers at Hogwarts in real-time.

Source: newlaunches.com

Source: newlaunches.com

Fictional protagonists aside, Albert Einstein was spot on when he wrote:

Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

We know a lot about maps but if we were to play the word association game we’d likely come up with static descriptions rather than words associated with moving pictures. The time slider feature on Google Earth is perhaps starting to shift people’s conception of maps. Hans Rosling‘s work with Gapminder is also stirring our imagination since he talks about time series data much like a sports commentator describes a horse race (see his really neat TED talk here).

source: google earth

source: google earth

But we’re even more trapped by our archaic conception of maps than we realize. Playing the word association game with the word “map” may conjure Google Earth’s time slider for a few neogeographers, but I doubt that anyone would blurt out “3D!” for example. And yet, that’s what some of us crisis mappers are increasingly thinking about.

Google invited me to participate in a full-day workshop at their DC office last week and sure enough they told us to expect that all structures (e.g., buildings, mountains) on Google Earth would be rendered in 3D within about 2 years. The team is looking to integrate Mapmaker, My Maps, and Sketch-Up with Google Earth. And we already know they have a great flight simulator.

Source: gizmodo

Source: gizmodo

Now compare the above screenshot of Google Earth with a screenshot of Simcity 4 below. And then, of course, there’s also Second Life, and more recently live video integrated into Google Earth.

SimCity4

In the meantime, the most accurate 3D map of any city on Earth has just been created using very high resolution lasers—some 7 million individual points of light to be exact. You could call this the best MRI of a terrestrial city yet!

I’ve already blogged about crisis maps evolving into 3D virtual worlds with live data feeds and agent-based models for scenario development, simulation and forecasting:

  • 3D Crisis Mapping for Disaster Simulation Training (link)
  • GeoTime: Visual Crisis Mapping in 3D (link)

All these systems are part of the evolving info webs I recently blogged about. But the italicized attributes above hardly come to mind when we hear the word map. And I think this is biggest problem with the term “crisis maps.” Perhaps we should come up with an entirely new term. But coming back to my interview with Reuters/Alertnet, a new more accurate term would simply add more technical jargon and definitely lose the public’s imagination (and mine with it).

So I’ve got an alternative “solution” … maybe. We keep the word map, or rather M.A.P.S. Yes, that’s right “Crisis MAPS.” All we need now is to be as creative as InSTEDD and find a way to fit this acronym with something sensible.

So how’s this?

Crisis MAPS = Crisis Movies and Platform Simulations

Patrick Philippe Meier

Mapping Massacres: GIS and State Terror in Guatemala

This is the title of a paper published in Geoforum in 2006 (PDF). Note that the paper was actually submitted in 2003 but the peer-review process appears to have taken 3 years. Ridiculous. I sympathize with the authors and hope they’ve turned to blogging. But the content of their paper is actually what I want to blog about here.

The authors use GIS to visually display the locations of massacres associated with Guatemala’s civil war at the department level and include information on indigenous populations as well as physical geography. They note that “maps have become tools of empowerment in Central America and elsewhere,” and highlight how indigenous groups “have begun to use maps as tools in their fight for land and marine resources, as well as greater political economy.”

It is worth understanding that “among some sectors of Guatemalan society, there is still wholesale denial and rejection of past violent events.” To this end, the purpose of “displaying exactly where violent acts took place is to […] educate the Guatemalan public regarding the terrible violence of the recent past.” The authors suggest that “knowing the name of a specific town where a massacre took place is more concrete, potentially leading to perception of place and people, rather than simply being aware of violence in the countryside.”

Guatemala massacres

The authors produced the maps above, which clearly show that most massacres were concentrated in landscapes whose majority populations are indigenous. “Massacres were not random events in Guatemala. Instead, they took place in very specific cultural landscapes. “

The following short excerpts very much resonate with my thinking on crisis mapping:

“Even information that is easily comprehensible without maps takes on new meaning when it is portrayed spatially.”

“However, knowing in a general sense where the violence took place is not enough. If we fail to accurately display such information spatially, we fail to fully understand where and especially why these events took place. […] By using some basic geographic information systems technologies, relationships between ethnicity, location, physical environment, and violence become much clearer.”

“Mapping these tragic events is critical because these maps also serve as another type of memorial for victims and their families. Many Guatemalans have yet to come to grips with the violence of the past. Maps, more so than words can help deconstruct violent events by providing a mental image of a location and event in the onlookers mind.”

The authors have certainly contributed a better spatial understanding of the violence thanks to this study. What is perhaps missing is an equally compelling temporal resolution so that events can be incrementally analyzed over time and space. Doing so may shed more light on the tactics and strategies employed to carry out the violence. These may produce specific patterns or a library of “fingerprints” that could then be used to investigate massacres in other countries.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Doctor Snow’s Health Map Propaganda

Doctor John Snow’s cholera map of 1854 is often heralded as an example of how mapping can illuminate powerful insights on otherwise hidden patterns. Not so, writes Mark Monmonier in his excellent book on “Spying with Maps” which I just reviewed here.

cholera-snow-map

Mark writes the following on John Snow’s famous map:

“If disease mapping has a poster child, it’s John Snow (1813-1858), the London anesthesiologist credited with discovering the water borne transmission of cholera. […] Snow is best known for his 1854 map showing victims’ homes clustered around Soho’s infamous Broad Street Pump, which he identified as a source of contaminated water. According to epidemiological lore, the good doctor tried unsuccessfully to convince public officials to close down the pump.”

“Undaunted, he too matters in his own hands, removed the pump’s handle, and demonstrated the correctness of his theory when new cases plummeted. Truth be told, the epidemic had already run its course. What’s more, Snow made his famous dot map several months later, for a revised edition of his book on cholera transmission. Even so, his pin map continues to embellish discussions of GIS and disease.”

“Medical geographers, GIS experts, and some epidemiologists perpetuate the Snow myth because it promotes disease mapping as a discovery tool and enhances the stature of their own disciplines. But a careful examination of Snow’s writings indicates that he understood cholera’s mode of transmission well before he made the map.”

“Although Snow was a thoughtful observer, neither his map nor those of his rivals were of any value in generating insightful hypotheses. Snow’s famous cholera map was pure propaganda—and copycat propaganda at that—but proved eminently useful later in the century, when public officials needed convincing arguments to isolate drinking water from sewage.”

Although Mark is rightfully critical of Dr. John Snow’s legendary map, the last sentence above is quite insightful. The map, while unhelpful in knowledge discovery of cholera’s source, did become “eminently useful” to influence public health policy.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Doctor Snow’s Health Map Propaganda

Doctor John Snow’s cholera map of 1854 is often heralded as an example of how mapping can illuminate powerful insights on otherwise hidden patterns. Not so, writes Mark Monmonier in his excellent book on “Spying with Maps” which I just reviewed here.

cholera-snow-map

Mark writes the following on John Snow’s famous map:

“If disease mapping has a poster child, it’s John Snow (1813-1858), the London anesthesiologist credited with discovering the water borne transmission of cholera. […] Snow is best known for his 1854 map showing victims’ homes clustered around Soho’s infamous Broad Street Pump, which he identified as a source of contaminated water. According to epidemiological lore, the good doctor tried unsuccessfully to convince public officials to close down the pump.”

“Undaunted, he too matters in his own hands, removed the pump’s handle, and demonstrated the correctness of his theory when new cases plummeted. Truth be told, the epidemic had already run its course. What’s more, Snow made his famous dot map several months later, for a revised edition of his book on cholera transmission. Even so, his pin map continues to embellish discussions of GIS and disease.”

“Medical geographers, GIS experts, and some epidemiologists perpetuate the Snow myth because it promotes disease mapping as a discovery tool and enhances the stature of their own disciplines. But a careful examination of Snow’s writings indicates that he understood cholera’s mode of transmission well before he made the map.”

“Although Snow was a thoughtful observer, neither his map nor those of his rivals were of any value in generating insightful hypotheses. Snow’s famous cholera map was pure propaganda—and copycat propaganda at that—but proved eminently useful later in the century, when public officials needed convincing arguments to isolate drinking water from sewage.”

Although Mark is rightfully critical of Dr. John Snow’s legendary map, the last sentence above is quite insightful. The map, while unhelpful in knowledge discovery of cholera’s source, did become “eminently useful” to influence public health policy.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Towards a “Theory” (or analogy) of Crisis Mapping?

The etymology of the word “theory” is particularly interesting. The word originates from the ancient Greek; theoros means “spectator,” from thea “a view” + horan “to see.” In 1638, theory was used to describe “an explanation based on observation and reasoning.” How fitting that the etymologies of “theory” resonate with the purpose of crisis mapping.

But is there a formal theory of crisis mapping per se?  There are little bits and pieces here and there, sprinkled across various disciplines, peer-reviewed journals and conference presentations. But I have yet to come across a “unified theory” of crisis mapping. This may be because the theory (or theories) are implicit and self-evident. Even so, there may be value in rendering the implicit—why we do crisis mapping—more visible.

Crises occur in time and space. Yet our study of crises (and conflict in particular) has generally focused on identifying trends over time rather than over space. Why? Because unlike the field of disaster management, we do not have seismographs scattered around the planet that  precisely pint point the source of escalating social tremors. This means that the bulk of our datasets describe conflict as an event happening in countries and years, not cities and days, let alone towns and hours.

This is starting to change thanks to several factors: political scientists are now painstakingly geo-referencing conflict data (example); natural language processing algorithms are increasingly able to extract time and place data from online media and user-generated content (example);  and innovative crowdsourcing platforms are producing new geo-referenced conflict datasets (example).

In other words, we have access to more disaggregated data, which allows us to study conflict dynamics at a more appropriate scale. By the way, this stands in contrast to the “goal of the modern state [which] is to reduce the chaotic, disorderly, constantly changing social reality beneath it to something more closely resembling the administrative grid of its observations” (1). Instead of Seeing Like a State, crisis mapping corrects the myopic grid to give us The View from Below.

Crises are patterns; by this I mean that crises are not random. Military or militia tactics are not random either. There is a method to the madnes—the fog of war not withstanding. Peace is also a pattern. Crisis mapping gives us the opportunity to detect peace and conflict patterns at a finer temporal and spatial resolution than previously possible; a resolution that more closely reflects reality at the human scale.

Why do scientists increasingly build more sophisticated microscopes? So they can get more micro-level data that might explain patterns at a macro-scale. (I wonder whether this means we’ll get to a point where we cannot reconcile quantum conflict mechanics with the general theory of conflict relativity). But I digress.

Compare analog televisions with today’s high-definition digital televisions. The latter is a closer reflection of reality. Or picture a crystal clear lake on a fine Spring day. You peer over the water and see the pattern of rocks on the bottom of the lake. You also see a perfect reflection of the leaves on the trees by the lake shore. If the wind picks up, however, or if rain begins to fall, the water drops cause ripples (“noise” in the data) that prevent us from seeing the same patterns as clearly. Crisis mapping calms the waters.

Keeping with the lake analogy, the ripples form certain patterns. Conflict is also the result of ripples in the socio-political fabric. The question is how to dampen or absorb the ripples without causing unintended ripples elsewhere? What kinds of new patterns might we generate to “cancel out” conflict patterns and amplify peaceful patterns? Thinking about patterns and anti-patterns in time and space may be a useful way to describe a theory of crisis mapping.

Some patterns may be more visible or detectable at certain temporal-spatial scales or resolutions than at others. Crisis mapping allows us to vary this scale freely; to see the Nazsca Lines of conflict from another perspective and at different altitudes. In short, crisis mapping allow us to escape the linear, two-dimensional world of Euclidean political science to see patterns that otherwise remain hidden.

In theory then, adding spatial data should improve the accuracy and explanatory power of conflict models. This should provide us with better and more rapid ways detect the patterns behind conflict ripples before they become warring tsunamis. But we need more rigorous and data-driven studies that demonstrate this theory in practice.

This is one theory of crisis mapping. Problem is, I have many others! There’s more to crisis mapping than modeling. In theory, crisis mapping should also provide better decision support, for example. Also, crisis mapping should theoretically be more conducive to tactical early response, not to mention monitoring & evaluation. Why? I’ll ramble on about that some other day. In the meantime, I’d be grateful for feedback on the above.

Patrick Philippe Meier