Crisis Mapping

Crisis mapping is the real-time gathering, visualizing, and analysis of data during conflict and disaster settings. With increasing use of mobile technology, internet connectivity, and social networking, information technology is playing a vital and evolving role in improving the efficiency and effectiveness of disaster response. Through free and open-source software such as Ushahidi, Sahana, and OpenStreetMap, thousands of citizens from all over the world can simultaneously collaborate and contribute to the gathering of crisis information to create comprehensive, interactive, and up-to-date maps. Crisis mapping, thus, has emerged as a flexible, value-oriented tool by which emergency responders and practitioners can quickly gather, retrieve, and visualize real-time information, thereby enabling them to better prepare, mitigate, and respond to emergencies.

Crisis mapping first became popularized in the media in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake through Ushahidi (Swahili for “witness”), a tech non-profit that specializes in developing free and open-source software for information collection, visualization, and interactive mapping. After the earthquake, Ushahidi launched a crisis map that allowed volunteer mappers from all over the world, in various time zones, to begin plotting, merging, and mapping information gathered from disparate sources, including social and mainstream media and the affected community (via SMS/Internet), in order to display and visualize representation of real-time reports on incidents, damages, and requests for support. OpenStreetMap, on the other hand, mapped out the Haitian crisis by synthesizing a comprehensive digital map of Haitian infrastructure, including roads, buildings, and camps, by crowdsourcing volunteer input gathered from satellite imagery and GPS surveys. The organization’s collective data were then used by various relief organizations, including the World Bank. [Source: MIT Center for Civic Media]

Source: Ushahidi

Undergirding effective crisis mapping is the practice of crowdsourcing done right. Through free, open-source software and access to data, crisis mapping is placed in the hands of the general wide public. Ushahidi and OpenStreetMap’s initiative in Haiti reflects the power and benefits in utilizing crowdsourced, user-generated data for the purposes of collecting and disseminating information “much more quickly and directly between citizens and relief workers than the customary assessments of traditional humanitarian entities” [Source: EmergencyMgmt]. It is essentially a consumer-oriented and consumer-driven tool that relies on the crowdsourcing of information and data to achieve the goal of producing rich visualizations and interactive, real-time maps. It can serve as a valuable tool in disaster settings for providing updated information, developing situational awareness and analysis, and improving coordination efforts among aid agencies. For example, the geospatial management of data in Sahana Eden enables emergency responders to visualize geospatial data, such as incidents, organizations, warehouses, hospitals, shelters, and projects on the ground [Source: Geoinformation for Informed Decisions]. It essentially equips disaster responders with the tools “to minimize the negative effects from devastating disasters through tracking the needs of the affected people and coordinating emergency agencies and aid resources” while enabling different actors to access and share the needed information in times of crises.

[SourceMIT Center for Civic Media]

Although information technology in humanitarian emergencies is not new, the recognition and uptake of crowdsourced information by practitioners and aid agencies in disaster settings, as illustrated during the 2010 Haiti earthquake, is quickly spreading to a broad array of stakeholders, including policymakers, aid agencies, scholars, and affected communities. Crisis mapping can serve as a valuable and flexible tool for responders to visualize needs, simplify coordination and improve response, and quickly adjust to their work based on the evolving and expanding needs on the ground. As the technology revolving around crisis mapping improves, practitioners and various stakeholders can better prepare, mitigate, and respond to emergencies.

Crisis mapping, according to CrisisMappers.net, is “the real-time gathering, display and analysis of data during a crisis, usually a natural disaster or social/political conflict (violence, elections, etc.).”

Crisis mappers, according to Crisismappers.net, are people who “leverage mobile & web-based applications, participatory maps & crowdsourced event data, aerial & satellite imagery, geospatial platforms, advanced visualization, live simulation, and computational & statistical models to power effective early warning for rapid response to complex humanitarian emergencies.”

Crowdsourcing, according to Crowdsourcing.com, has been a popular crisis mapping tool. “Used to map a wide range of issues, crowdsourcing makes it easier for a large group of people from all over a region, city, country, etc., to document where problems are occurring and when. This information is used to help respond to problems, provide aid to regions that need it and keep the public up-to-date on issues as they progress.”