When a disputed Kenyan election turned violent in 2007, an organization called Ushahidi emerged to map the destruction and killings that broke out across the country. Ushahidi, which means ''testimony'' in Swahili, used text messages from eyewitnesses to create an easily understood graphic depiction of the violence taking place. Their software was later used in the Congo and by Al Jazeera to depict the war in Gaza that took place at the end of 2008.
Ushahidi is just one of many nonprofits, governmental agencies, and human rights lobbying agencies using maps for humanitarian work. Unfortunately, these organizations are notoriously bad at sharing data, according to Patrick Meier. To solve this problem, Meier recently started the International Network of Crisis Mappers (INCM), which aims to connect people and organizations using maps for good.
When a natural disaster strikes or violence breaks out in a country, a map can change the nature of that crisis. The simple act of getting people in front of a map and asking for input can build consensus between warring parties. Maps can also ensure that humanitarian resources are used more effectively and get to the people who need them more quickly.
Crisis mapping is more than simply mapping crises, according to Meier. New technology—including text messages, Twitter, and satellite imagery—is changing the way that data for maps are being collected. Anyone with a cell phone can now help update aid workers on natural disasters or violent altercations in real time. Designers are constantly coming up with new and interesting ways to create visualizations of that data to make it look more appealing. Researchers are then using the data from maps to look for patterns. The information and maps are then pushed out into the field to give support tools to the activists and the nonprofits trying to help the people caught in a crisis.
Organizations don't always want to spend time and resources sharing data in the midst of a crisis, but more collaboration is often needed. Meier’s INCM makes it easier and less time-consuming for organizations to collaborate with each other, so that everyone can start helping people more effectively. When typhoons recently rocked the Philippines, for example, INCM connected a half dozen groups, including Open Street Map, to share information that may have helped deploy humanitarian aid more effectively. Meier hopes this burgeoning movement will continue to connect different mapping projects and humanitarian agencies to make collaboration happen more quickly and easily.
Image from Ushahidi.
To view examples of crisis maps, watch the slideshow below: