What is Crisis Mapping? An Update on the Field and Looking Ahead

I last updated my piece on A Brief History of Crisis Mapping some two years ago, well before the first International Conference on Crisis Mapping was held (ICCM 2009). So a brief update on the past 24 months may be in order, especially for a field that continues to grow so rapidly. When I Googled the term “crisis mapping” in September 2009, I got 8,680 hits. Today, one gets over 200,000. If you’re curious about the origins of the field and what happened before 2009, my original blog post still serves as a useful intro. I also recommend this recent video on Changing the World One Map at a Time and this earlier blog post on Proposing the Field of Crisis Mapping (also from 2009).

Clearly a full update on the past 24 months would constitute at least an MA thesis (if you’re a grad student and looking for a topic, email me!). So what is Crisis Mapping? “Dots on a map” is often the tongue-in-cheek reply. Crisis Mapping is of course a lot more than that. To place Crisis Mapping into context, it helps to think of the field as a subset of the “Live Mapping” space. I also often use the following analogy, crisis mapping platforms are to crises zones what MRI’s are to emergency rooms. Static, paper-based maps would be the equivalent of X-rays in this analogy. Crisis Mapping is thus live mapping focused on crises, and the term crisis here is deliberately broad, from slow-burn crises to sudden-onset disasters. Crisis Mapping is certainly not restricted to political crises but may include social and environmental crises, for example.

Crisis Mapping can be described as combining the following 3 components: information collection, visualization and analysis. Of course, all these elements are within the context of a dynamic, interactive map. So I typically use the following taxonomy:

  1. Crisis Map Sourcing
  2. Crisis Map Visualization
  3. Crisis Map Analysis

On Crisis Map Sourcing, there are multiple methodologies and technologies that one can use for information collection. These range from the traditional paper-based survey approaches and Walking-Papers to crowdsourcing reports via SMS and automatically parsing social media data on the web. Visualization is about rendering the information collected on a dynamic, interactive map in such a way that the rendering provides maximum insight on the data collected and any potential visual patterns. This is of course nothing new to the field of cartography and geographic information systems. What is perhaps new is that the technologies used for the visualization are free or open source or both, and that they don’t require much in the way of prior training. Some have referred to this as neogeography.

Crisis Map Analysis is also nothing new and simply entails the application of statistical techniques to spatial data for pattern or “signature” detection. What is perhaps novel is that the analysis is now happening more and more on the fly, i.e., in real-time. The point of doing this kind of analysis is to provide in-the-moment decision-support to users of a given Crisis Mapping platform. Thus the interface of said platforms should allow users to easily query the map and test out different scenarios to identify the best course of action given a changing or evolving environment. Ideally, a Crisis Mapping platform should also allow you to assess the impact of your actions.

So these are the terms and concepts that one can use to talk about the field of Crisis Mapping. But what exactly has changed over the two years?

I’d say the increasing use of free and open source crisis mapping software, for one. There has also been a lot more interest in the use of social media and up-to-date satellite imagery as a source of information. The same goes with using crowdsourcing to collect crisis information. The rise of online volunteers engaged in crisis mapping is another new and important development which holds much potential. This is particularly true as formal humanitarian organizations are now taking important steps to interface with these volunteer communities.

Perhaps what I am most excited about is the recent use of Crisis Mapping not just to identify problems but also existing solutions; the idea is to combine crowdsourcing with crowdfeeding to create a crowdsourcing “market place” that matches needs with resources. The basic idea is to help other help themselves. Professional disaster responders may not always be there to help but the crowd is always there. To learn more about this approach, please see this blog post.

One interesting impact of Crisis Mapping that hadn’t occurred to me two years ago is the social connectivity aspect. What do I mean by that? Simply this: the value of Crisis Mapping may at times have less to do with the actual map and more with the conversations and new collaborative networks catalyzed by launching a Crisis Mapping project. Indeed, this in part explains why the Standby Volunteer Task Force exists in the first place. So Collaborative Crisis Mapping can generate both weak and strong-ties.

Where do I see the field going over the next 24 months? I think we’ll see more focus on solutions to process large volumes of geo-data in real time, especially of the social media and SMS type. By process I  mean automated data-mining, entity-extraction, geo-location, categorization and language translation combined with human-driven curation tools. The application of “Mechanical Turk” services may also become more common place.

What else? Existing Crisis Mapping platforms are highly limited because the majority are only available in the English language. So I expect this to change in the near future if platforms are really to scale. The role of mobile technologies will remain center stage, of course, with more multimedia content appearing on crisis maps along with live video feeds. As a result, I also expect (and hope) to see more examples of Maptivism, i.e., tactical live mapping.

In addition, I’d like to see more on-the-fly mashups of live data. Take the flood mapping in Queensland, Australia, for example. I hope to see future live maps like this one include live traffic and weather updates (and forecasts) as dynamics layers. Colleagues Anahi Ayala and Helena Puig have also been playing around with the idea of combining geo-referenced crowdsourced SMS reports with cell phone coverage maps to identify potential areas of “over-” and “under-reporting.” One could then develop simple algorithms to potentially identify unusual gaps in SMS reporting.

Finally, I’d like to see more “check-in” (and check-out) features integrated into Crisis Mapping platforms, i.e., simple one-click updates on one’s location and activity has many use-cases in crisis response, particularly if this can be combined with alternative uses of geo-caching, e.g., pre-formulated messages that are automatically activated upon checking-in at given locations and points in time. So instead of  the traditional message “In case of an emergency, break glass” you’d have “In case of emergency, check-in for info on how to survive.”

What are your thoughts? Where do you see the field of Crisis Mapping going over the next 12-24 months?

15 responses to “What is Crisis Mapping? An Update on the Field and Looking Ahead

  1. “the value of Crisis Mapping may at times have less to do with the actual map and more with the conversations and new collaborative networks catalyzed by launching a Crisis Mapping project”

    Spot on. Coming together to communicate the reality on the ground can in itself be empowering, regardless of what happens to that information afterward. I think this may also point to a possible direction for crisis mapping in the next year or two. The networks created around a crisis might decided to continue collaborating, and use their crisis map for ongoing reporting. These won’t be crisis maps any more, rather live maps reporting views from the ground. I’m curious about how these live maps emerging from crisis maps turn out. Is there any incentive for people to continue reporting after a crisis? Will it be a crisis map on “standy by”, with little to report while things are calm, but ready to be activated if another crisis emerges? Or will it be a new form of media (citizen reporting)? Or even a new way of organizing around local issues (crowdfeeding)?

    On the topic of crisis map analysis – we’re only at the early stages of adapting traditional GIS and statistical analysis tools to crisis mapping. Much of the analysis is currently being done offline, not on the crisis mapping platforms. It’s also very dependent on the availability of additional data (SMS coverage, location of facilities, etc). And we’re still debating what questions we want to be asking of the data, what biases we need to take care with and what conclusions it’s legitimate to draw from crisis map data. Two years from now, I think the debate on crisis map analysis will have moved much further.

    • Thanks for your comments, Helena. You’re right, I do think we’ll see more “re-use” of existing maps, like the Sudan Vote Monitor project being used initially for the presidential elections, then the South Referendum and perhaps more in the coming months. I believe the Egypt project U-Shahid will be re-used again for the presidential elections. So that’s an interesting point, hopefully the learning will be cumulative. I think your comments also hint at another interesting point that is worth expanding on, namely the creation of social capital as a by-product of collaborative crisis mapping efforts. This social capital is fungible and not limited to applications having to crisis mapping, however. So what if this social capital were then applied offline in other forms, like activism?

      One crisis map analysis – good point re “we’re still debating what questions we want to be asking…”

      Thanks again!

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  3. Patrick – great post! I’m excited to hear about the discussions happening around crisis map analysis. My first thoughts about overlays of phone coverage maps to analyze the “over” and “under” reporting is that this would only show you geographic representation of reporting and not how representative reporting is based on demographics and/or socio-economic information. Integrating this type of information would be more complicated, however extremely interesting. I would love to contribute and learn more about the discussions around this.

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