Monthly Archives: October 2011

Crisis Mapping the Opening Battle of the Sino-French War

I only had a few hours to explore Taipei last week and thus chose to visit the highly recommended National Place Museum just outside the city. I was well impressed with the Museum’s use of technology, from table-sized “iPads” to 3D virtual reality displays of ancient artifacts. But it was a small and nondescript 127-year-old crisis map that truly stole the show for me.

The crisis map depicts the Battle of Fuzhou (Foochow) also known as the Battle of the Pagoda Anchorage, named for a remarkable Chinese pagoda, the Luoxingta (羅星塔), which still stands on a hill above the harbor today. The battle, which took place in August 1884, was the opening engagement of the Sino-French War which lasted for a year and a half.

Admiral Amédée Courbet, in command of the French squadran, had noticed that the Chinese ships anchored near the harbor swung with the tide and thus decided to plan his attack just before high tide at 2 p.m. on the afternoon of Saturday, August 23, 1884, when he hoped the Chinese ships would have “swung away from the French ships and would be presenting their vulnerable sterns to the attackers.” Courbet’s strategy worked, “virtually destroying the Fujian Fleet, one of China’s four regional fleets.”

I took a picture of the Chinese crisis map on display in Taipei (see below), which is apparently the first copy to make it on the Internet. The caption in English on the bottom right reads: “Diagram of engagement between the French and Chinese naval fleets at Mawei, French warships attack during the afternoon low tide. Chinese vessels anchored at the bows, now face the French astern, unable to use the powerful bow cannons, resulting in the total sinking of the Ch’ing  Fuzhou (Foochow) Naval Fleet, August 23, 1884.”

I was so intrigued and surprised to find this crisis map that I followed up with some online research. The Wikipedia article on the battle was an absolute treasure trove of information and pictures. Take for example, the French version of the crisis map below.

Both maps appear to be more or less at the same scale but only the French includes distance bar (0-500 meters). The French map is also more detailed (history is written by the victors?) but the Chinese one makes more use of color-coding. To get a better sense of what the “battle field” and ships looked liked, check out the following pictures.

The above was painted in the 19th century. The painting below depicts the bombing of the Fuzhou Arsenal on the following day, August 24th.

Contrast the above French version with the Chinese lithograph of the battle below and the Japanese depiction that follows.

The picture below shows the Chinese fleet the night before the French attack. The two following pictures depict the result, the sunken Chinese ships.


Curious to know what the area looks like today? The Wikipedia article also provided a number of pictures.

Know of other crisis maps from hundreds of years ago? If so, please feel free to share in the comments section below. Thanks!

It’s Official, I’m a PhD

Theorizing Ushahidi: An Academic Treatise

[This is an excerpt taken from Chapter 1 of my dissertation]

Activists are not only turning to social media to document unfolding events, they are increasingly mapping these events for the world to bear witness. We’ve seen this happen in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and beyond. My colleague Alexey Sidorenko describes this new phenomenon as a “mapping reflex.” When student activists from Khartoum got in touch earlier this year, they specifically asked for a map, one that would display their pro-democracy protests and the government crackdown. Why? They wanted the world to see that the Arab Spring extended to the Sudan.

The Ushahidi platform is increasingly used to map information generated by crowds in near-real time like the picture depicted above. Why is this important? Because live public maps can help synchronize shared awareness, an important catalyzing factor of social movements, according to Jürgen Habermas. Recall Habermas’s treatise that “those who take on the tools of open expression become a public, and the presence of a synchronized public increasingly constrains un-democratic rulers while expanding the right of that public.”

Sophisticated political maps have been around for hundreds of years. But the maps of yesteryear, like the books of old, were created and controlled by the few. While history used to be written by the victors, today, journalists like my colleague Anand Giridharadas from the New York Times are asking whether the triangulated crisis map will become the new first draft of history. In the field of geography and cartography, some refer to this new wave of democratized map-making as “neo-geography.” But this new type of geography is not only radically different from traditional approaches because it is user-generated and more par-ticipatory; the fact that today’s dynamic maps can also be updated and shared in near real-time opens up an entire new world of possibilities and responses.

Having a real time map is almost as good as having your own helicopter. A live map provides immediate situational awareness, a third dimension and additional perspective on events unfolding in time and space. Moreover, creating a map catalyzes conversations between activists, raises questions about geographic patterns or new incidents, and leads to more questions regarding the status quo in a repressive environment. To be sure, mass media alone does not change people’s minds.  Recall that political change is a two-step process, with the second—social step—being where political opinions are formed (Katz and Lazarsfeld 1955). “This is the step in which the Internet in general, and social media in particular, can make a difference” (Shirky 2010). In addition, the collaboration that takes place when creating a live map can also reinforce weak and strong ties, both of which are important for civil resistance.

The Ushahidi platform enables a form of live-mapped “sousveillance,” which refers to the recording of an activity using portable personal technologies. In many respects, however, the use of Ushahidi goes beyond sousveillance in that it generates the possibility of “dataveillance” and a possible reversal of Bentham’s panopticon. “With postmodernity, the panopticon has been informationalized; what once was organized around hierarchical observation is now organized through decoding and recoding of information” (Lyon 2006). In Seeing Like a State, James Scott argues eloquently that this process of decoding and recoding was for centuries the sole privilege of the State. In contrast, the Ushahidi platform provides a participatory digital canvas for the public decoding, recoding of information and synchronization of said information. In other words, the platform serves to democratize dataveillance by crowdsourcing what was once the exclusive realm of the “security-informational complex.”

In Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts published in 1990, James Scott distinguishes between public and hidden transcripts. The former describes the open, public interactions that take place between domina-tors and oppressed while hidden transcripts relate to the critique of power that “goes on offstage” and which the power elites cannot decode. This hidden transcript is comprised of the second step, social conversations, that Katz and Lazarsfeld (1955) argue ultimately change political behavior. Scott writes that when the oppressed classes publicize this “hidden transcript”, they become conscious of its common status. Borrowing from Habermas, the oppressed thereby become a public and more importantly a synchronized public. In many ways, the Ushahidi platform is a vehicle by which the hidden transcript is collectively published and used to create shared awareness—thereby threatening to alter the balance of power between the oppressors and oppressed.

The new dynamics that are enabled by “liberation technologies” like Ushahidi may enable a different form of democracy, one which arising from “the inability of electoral/representative politics to keep it promises [has thus] led to the development of indirect forms of democracy” (Rosanvallon 2008). More specifically, Rosanvallon indentifies three channels whereby civil society can hold the state accountable not just during elections but also between elections and independent of their results. “The first refers to the various means whereby citizens (or, more accurately, organizations of citizens) are able to monitor and publicize the behavior of elected and appointed rulers; the second to their capacity to mobilize resistance to specific policies, either before or after they have been selected; the third to the trend toward ‘juridification’ of politics  [cf. dataveillance] when individuals or social groups use the courts and, especially, jury trials to bring delinquent politicians to judgment” (Schmitter 2008, PDF).

These three phases correspond surprisingly well with the three waves of Ushahidi uses witnessed over the past three years. The first wave was reactive and documentary focused. The second was more pro-active and focused on action beyond documentation while the third seeks to capitalize on the first two to complete the rebalancing of power. Perhaps this final wave is the teleological purpose of the Ushahidi platform or What Technology Wants as per Kevin Kelly’s treatise. However, this third wave, the trend toward the “juridificaiton” of democracy bolstered by crowdsourced evidence that is live-mapped on a public Ushahidi platform, is today more a timid ripple than a tsunami of change reversing the all-seeing “panopticon”. A considerable amount of learning-by-doing remains to be done by those who wish to use the Ushahidi platform for impact beyond the first two phases of Rosanvallon’s democracy.