Humanitarian crises necessitate the fast and effective use and sharing of geographic data (MapAction, 2011). As MapAction (ibid, p. 2) explains, “the where dimension is of crucial importance: aid in the wrong place is no help at all.” This being the case, humanitarian practitioners need and demand to know the where (MapAction, 2011). And this being the case, it is hardly surprising that GIS – with its capacity to communicate the where – is routinely implemented in response to humanitarian crises (ICRC, 2012; Kaiser et al, 2003).
In short, maps help humanitarian practitioners comprehend and respond to humanitarian crises (MapAction, 2015). Director of Save the Children International Charlie Mason (cited by MapAction, 2011, p. 3) echoes the thoughts of thousands of humanitarian practitioners when she states:
“In an emergency [I] want maps, maps of the affected population, displacements, major routes, other actors, clinics, water points and so on, all the things I need […] to plan and coordinate the response.”
Figure 1: A map of the status of Vanuatu’s airports following Cyclone Pam (MapAction, 2015)
Figure 2: A map of flood impact in Pakistan as of 18 August 2015 (UNOCHA, 2015)
Figure 3: A map of buildings per section in Ouest Department, Haiti (CartONG, 2014)
And Figure 3, mapping buildings per section as revealed by satellite imagery, helped humanitarian practitioners gain a fuller understanding of the affected population’s location and environment.
Since the beginning of the 2010s, the implementation of GIS in response to humanitarian crises has been dominated by web-based open source mapping tools and web-based humanitarian mapping networks (ICRC, 2012; Meier, 2011). Web-based open source mapping tools – such as Google Earth, Virtual Earth and OpenStreetMap – are much more accessible and much more streamlined than traditional mapping tools (MapAction, 2011; Meier, 2009). And, much more accessible and much more streamlined, they are much more deployable (owing to their expensiveness and complexity, many humanitarian organisations have experienced difficulty deploying traditional mapping tools (although, as figures 1 to 3 testify, traditional mapping tools are still deployed and still help humanitarian practitioners comprehend and respond to humanitarian crises the world over)) (MapAction, 2011). Web-based humanitarian mapping networks – such as Crisis Mappers, Standby Task Force and Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team – are networks of typically thousands of compassionate, self-motivated and dedicated volunteers (of varying GIS literacy) who work together with network leaders, (primarily) web-based open source mapping tools and a constant stream of principally cell phone-, social media- and satellite/unmanned aerial vehicle-sourced data to produce and maintain detailed, live and interactive maps of crises affected locales for humanitarian practitioners’ disaster response planning (Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, 2015a; Medecins Sans Frontieres, 2015; Missing Maps, 2015).
What web-based humanitarian mapping networks do is commonly known as crisis mapping and what they produce and maintain are commonly known as crisis maps (Meier, 2009). Crisis mapping involves three elements: crisis map sourcing, crisis map visualisation and crisis map analysis (Meier, 2011).
Crisis map sourcing is the collection of data with which to populate crisis maps (Missing Maps, 2015). Multiple methodologies and technologies are used for crisis map sourcing (Parker, 2015). They include crowdsourcing via SMS, the automatic parsing of social media and the gathering of satellite/unmanned aerial vehicle imagery (Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, 2015a; Meier, 2011).
Crisis map visualisation is the rendering of collected data into a live and interactive map (Meier, 2011). This is achieved using web-based open source mapping tools (Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, 2015). Crisis mapping pioneer Patrick Meier and his team used Ushahidi to produce and maintain a crisis map of post-2010 earthquake Haiti (figure 4) and Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team used OpenStreetMap to produce and maintain a crisis map of post-Earthquake Kathmandu and its surrounds (figure 5) (figure 6 is a detail of figure 5 (note the incredible amount of information humanitarian practitioners have at their fingertips) and figure 7 shows Kathmandu and its surrounds on OpenStreetMap before Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team’s rendering of data) (Asher, 2015; Meier, 2012). Meier and his team’s use of Ushahidi centred upon manually inputting news, cell phone and social media data onto the Ushahidi map (Meier, 2012). And humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team’s use of OpenStreetMap centered upon tracing satellite imagery onto the OpenStreetMap map (Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, 2015a).
Figure 4: Meier and his team’s Ushahidi-driven crisis map of post-2010 earthquake Haiti (Meier, 2012)
Figure 5: Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team’s OpenStreetMap-driven crisis map of post-earthquake Kathmandu and its surrounds (Asher, 2015)
Figure 7: Kathmandu and its surrounds on OpenStreetMap before Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team’s rendering of data (Asher, 2015)
Finally, crisis map analysis is, quite simply, the using of web-based open source mapping tools’ interfaces to query crisis maps and test different scenarios (Meier, 2011). This element is conducted by both web-based humanitarian mapping networks and humanitarian practitioners and is what ultimately informs disaster response planning (Missing Maps, 2015).
Crisis mapping has proven incredibly effective (ICRC, 2012; Meier, 2011; Parker, 2015). Just take the two aforementioned examples. Patrick Meier and his team’s Ushahidi-driven crisis map of post-2010 earthquake Haiti (figure 4) guided the United States Marine Corps to countless isolated earthquake victims trapped and/or in desperate need of supplies before it was too late and Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team’s OpenStreetMap-driven crisis map of post-Earthquake Kathmandu and its surrounds (figure 5) helped direct Medecins sans Frontieres, the American Red Cross and the British Red Cross to those who required medical assistance most before it was too late (Medecins sans Frontieres, 2015; Parker, 2015).
Crisis mapping is also becoming highly organised and highly attune to the precise requirements of humanitarian organisations. Founded in 2012, the Digital Humanitarian Network (2015, n. pag) has, in its own words, the purpose of “leverag[ing] digital networks in support of twenty first century humanitarian response.” The Digital Humanitarian Network (ibid) explains and its website:
“The aim of this network-of-networks is to form a consortium of Volunteer and Technical Communities and to provide an interface between formal, professional humanitarian organisations and informal yet skilled and agile Volunteer and Technical Communities.”
And continues (ibid):
“The purpose of the [Digital Humanitarian Network] Coordinators is to review activation requests [of humanitarian organisations] and rapidly liaise with the different Volunteer and Technical [Communities] who are members of [the] Digital [Humanitarian Network] to build a Solution Team best able to act on a request. The coordinators aim [is] to provide a response to every request within 24 hours.”
To date, several Volunteer and Technical Communities – including Crisis Mappers, Standby Task Force and Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team – have joined the consortium of Volunteer and Technical Communities and several humanitarian organisations – including the Philippines Red Cross, the United Commission High Commission for Refugees and the United Nations Office of Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs – have submitted activation requests (Digital Humanitarian Network, 2015a).
Finally, crisis mapping – conducted principally by volunteers using web-based open source mapping tools – does not cost humanitarian organisations.
For the above reasons, crisis mapping is well set to dominate future implementation of GIS in response to humanitarian crises (in fact, many humanitarian organisations have now abandoned in-house mapping operations). And, this being so, it is pertinent to end by identifying expected future developments in crisis mapping.
The crisis mapping literature identifies the following expected future developments: recruitment of more and more highly skilled volunteers, expanding digital toolkits of web-based open source mapping tools, further development of error prevention mechanisms, automatic parsing of new social media platforms, mapping of social media-sourced film and photography and greater deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles for the capture of oblique imagery (Meier, 2011; Parker, 2015). We should therefore expect increasingly accurate, detailed and thus insightful crisis maps.
To conclude, GIS is clearly central to effective disaster response (MapAction, 2011). Its centrality stems from its capacity to communicate the where. Today, crisis mapping is communicating the where more effectively than it ever has been. It is producing and maintaining crisis maps that communicate an incredible amount of multimedia data and, what is more, communicate it live and in a manner that can be manipulated. Of recent developments, the emergence of networks-of-networks like the Digital Humanitarian Network is the most exciting. In the foundation of such networks, we see crisis mapping formalising in a way which increases its efficiency and which allows the precise requirements of humanitarian organisations to dictate its agenda. Looking forward, there is more to be excited about. Expected future developments, if they materialise, will result in even more effective communication of the where.
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