Tag Archives: Africa

Crisis Mapping Climate Change, Conflict and Aid in Africa

I recently gave a guest lecture at the University of Texas, Austin, and finally had the opportunity to catch up with my colleague Josh Busby who has been working on a promising crisis mapping project as part of the university’s Climate Change and African Political Stability Program (CCAPS).

Josh and team just released the pilot version of its dynamic mapping tool, which aims to provide the most comprehensive view yet of climate change and security in Africa. The platform, developed in partnership with AidData, enables users to “visualize data on climate change vulnerability, conflict, and aid, and to analyze how these issues intersect in Africa.” The tool is powered by ESRI technology and allows researchers as well as policymakers to “select and layer any combination of CCAPS data onto one map to assess how myriad climate change impacts and responses intersect. For example, mapping conflict data over climate vulnera-bility data can assess how local conflict patterns could exacerbate climate-induced insecurity in a region. It also shows how conflict dynamics are changing over time and space.”

The platform provides hyper-local data on climate change and aid-funded interventions, which can provide important insights on how development assistance might (or might not) be reducing vulnerability. For example, aid projects funded by 27 donors in Malawi (i.e., aid flows) can be layered on top of the climate change vulnerability data to “discern whether adaptation aid is effectively targeting the regions where climate change poses the most significant risk to the sustainable development and political stability of a country.”

If this weren’t impressive enough, I was positively amazed when I learned from Josh and team that the conflict data they’re using, the Armed Conflict Location Event Data (ACLED), will be updated on a weekly basis as part of this project, which is absolutely stunning. Back in the day, ACLED was specifically coding historical data. A few years ago they closed the gap by updating some conflict data on a yearly basis. Now the temporal lag will just be one week. Note that the mapping tool already draws on the Social Conflict in Africa Database (SCAD).

This project is an important contribution to the field of crisis mapping and I look forward to following CCAPS’s progress closely over the next few months. I’m hoping that Josh will present this project at the 2012 International Crisis Mappers Conference (ICCM 2012) later this year.

The Horn of Africa and the Crisis Mapping Community

“… the Horn of Africa famine and the associated crises gravely affecting millions of people has not animated the crisis-mapping community and its online platforms to the extent of post-Haiti or, more recently, following the 2011 earthquake in Japan.”

I’m somewhat concerned by the phrasing of this statement, which comes from this recent article published by ICT4Peace. Perhaps the author is simply unaware of the repeated offers made by the crisis mapping community to provide crisis mapping solutions, mobile information collection platforms, short codes, call center services, etc., to several humanitarian organizations including UN OCHA, UNDP and WFP over the past three months.

In the case of OCHA, the team in Somalia replied that they had everything under control. In terms of UNDP, the colleagues we spoke with simply did/do not have the capacity, time or skill-set to leverage new crisis mapping solutions to improve their situational awareness or better communicate with disaster affected comm-unities. And WFP explained that lack of access rather than information was the most pressing challenge they were facing (at least two months ago), an issue echoed by two other humanitarian organizations.

This excellent report by Internews details the complete humanitarian tech-nology failure in Dadaab refugee camp and underscores how limited and behind some humanitarian organizations still are vis-a-vis the prioritization of “new” in-formation and communication technologies (ICTs) to improve humanitarian response and the lives of refugees in crisis situations. These organizations require support and core funding to “upgrade”. Throwing crisis mapping technologies at the problem is not going to solve many problems if the under-lying humanitarian mechanisms are not in place to leverage these solutions.

This is not a criticism of humanitarian organizations but rather hard reality. I’ve had numerous conversations with both technology and humanitarian colleagues over the past three months about how to reach for low hanging fruits and catalyze quick-wins with even the most minimal ICT interventions. But as is often the case, the humanitarian community is understandably overwhelmed and genu-inely trying to do the best they can given the very difficult circumstances. Indeed, Somalia presents a host of obvious challenges and risks that were not present in either Haiti or Japan. (Incidentally, only a fraction of the crisis mapping commu-nity was involved in Japan compared to overall efforts in Somalia).

Perhaps ICT4Peace is also unaware that some colleagues and I spent many long days and nights in August and September preparing the launch of a live crisis map for Somalia, which ESRI, Google, Nethope and several other groups provided critical input on. See my blog post on this initiative here. But the project was torpedoed by a humanitarian organization that was worried about the conse-quences of empowering the Somali Diaspora, i.e., that they would become more critical of the US government’s perceived inaction as a result of the information they collected—a consequence I personally would have championed as an indica-tor of success.

Maybe ICT4Peace is also unaware that no humanitarian organization formally requested the activation of the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) in August. That said, the SBTF did engage in this pilot project to crowdsource the geo-tagging of shelters in Somalia in September as a simple trial run. Since then, the SBTF has officially partnered with UNHCR and the Joint Research Center (JRC) to geo-tag IDP camps in specific regions in Somalia next month. Digital Globe is a formal partner in this project, as is Tomnod. Incidentally, JRC is co-hosting this year’s International Conference of Crisis Mappers (ICCM 2011).

ICT4Peace is perhaps also not aware of a joint project between Ushahidi and UN OCHA Kenya to provide crisis mapping support, or of recent conversations with Al Jazeera, Souktel, the Virgin Group, K’naan, PopTech, CeaseFire, PeaceTXT, GSMA, DevSeed and others on implementing crisis mapping and SMS solutions for Somalia. In addition, the Humanitarian Open Street Map Team (HOT) has been busy improving the data for Somalia and the only reason they haven’t been able to go full throttles forward is because of data licensing issues beyond their control. Colleagues from the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) have also been offering their help where and when they can.

In sum, to say that the crisis mapping community has not been as “animated” in response to the crisis in the Horn is misleading and rather unfortunate given that ICT4Peace is co-hosting this year’s International Conference of Crisis Mappers (ICCM 2011). All ICT4Peace had to do was to send one simple email to the CrisisMappers.net membership to get all the above information (and likely more). Just because these efforts are not captured on CNN or on the front pages of the UN Chronicle does not mean that there haven’t been numerous ongoing efforts behind the scenes by dozens of different partners and members of the crisis mapping community.

I would therefore not be so quick to dismiss the perceived inaction of this comm-unity. I would also not make an automatic assumption that crisis mapping platforms and mobile technology solutions will always be “easy” or feasible to deploy in every context, especially if this is attempted reactively in the middle of a complex humanitarian crisis. Both Haiti and Japan provided permissive envi-ronments, unlike recent crisis mapping projects in Libya, Egypt and the Sudan which present serious security challenges. Finally, if direct offers of support by the crisis mapping community are not leveraged by field-based humanitarian organizations, then how exactly is said crisis mapping community supposed to be more animated?

Analyzing Satellite Imagery of the Somali Crisis Using Crowdsourcing

 Update: results of satellite imagery analysis available here.

You gotta love Twitter. Just two hours after I tweeted the above—in reference to this project—a colleague of mine from the UN who just got back from the Horn of Africa called me up: “Saw your tweet, what’s going on?” The last thing I wanted to was talk about the über frustrating day I’d just had. So he said, “Hey, listen, I’ve got an idea.” He reminded me of this blog post I had written a year ago on “Crowdsourcing the Analysis of Satellite for Disaster Response” and said, “Why not try this for Somalia? We could definitely use that kind of information.” I quickly forgot about my frustrating day.

Here’s the plan. He talks to UNOSAT and Google about acquiring high-resolution satellite imagery for those geographic areas for which they need more information on. A colleague of mine in San Diego just launched his own company to develop mechanical turk & micro tasking solutions for disaster response. He takes this satellite imagery and cuts it into say 50×50 kilometers square images for micro-tasking purposes.

We then develop a web-based interface where volunteers from the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) sign in and get one high resolution 50×50 km image displayed to them at a time. For each image, they answer the question: “Are there any human shelters discernible in this picture? [Yes/No].” If yes, what would you approximate the population of that shelter to be? [1-20; 21-50; 50-100; 100+].” Additional questions could be added. Note that we’d provide them with guidelines on how to identify human shelters and estimate population figures.

No shelters discernible in this image

Each 50×50 image would get rated by at least 3 volunteers for data triangulation and quality assurance purposes. That is, if 3 volunteers each tag an image as depicting a shelter (or more than one shelter) and each of the 3 volunteers approximate the same population range, then that image would get automatically pushed to an Ushahidi map, automatically turned into a geo-tagged incident report and automatically categorized by the population estimate. One could then filter by population range on the Ushahidi map and click on those reports to see the actual image.

If satellite imagery licensing is an issue, then said images need not be pushed to the Ushahidi map. Only the report including the location of where a shelter has been spotted would be mapped along with the associated population estimate. The satellite imagery would never be released in full, only small bits and pieces of that imagery would be shared with a trusted network of SBTF volunteers. In other words, the 50×50 images could not be reconstituted and patched together because volunteers would not get contiguous 50×50 images. Moreover, volunteers would sign a code of conduct whereby they pledge not to share any of the imagery with anyone else. Because we track which volunteers see which 50×50 images, we could easily trace any leaked 50×50 image back to the volunteer responsible.

Note that for security reasons, we could make the Ushahidi map password protected and have a public version of the map with very limited spatial resolution so that the location of individual shelters would not be discernible.

I’d love to get feedback on this idea from iRevolution readers, so if you have thoughts (including constructive criticisms), please do share in the comments section below.

Crisis Mapping Somalia with the Diaspora

The state of Minnesota is home to the largest population of Somalis in North America. Like any Diaspora, the estimated 25,000 Somalis who live there ar closely linked to family members back home. They make thousands of phone calls every week to numerous different locations across Somalia. So why not make the Somali Diaspora a key partner in the humanitarian response taking place half-way across the world?

In Haiti, Mission 4636 was launched to crowdsource micro needs assessments from the disaster affected population via SMS. The project could not have happened without hundreds of volunteers from the Haitian Diaspora who translated and geo-referenced the incoming text messages. There’s no doubt that Diasporas can play a pivotal role in humanitarian response but they are typically ignored by large humanitarian organizations. This is why I’m excited to be part of an initiative that plans to partner with key members of the Diaspora to create a live crisis map of Somalia.

This is a mock-up for illustration only

The project is still in very early stages so there’s not much to show right now but I’m hopeful that the stars will align next week so we can formally launch the initiative. The basic game plan is as follows:

  • A short survey of some 10 questions is being drafted by public health professionals with experience in humanitarian response. These questions will try to capture the most essential indicators. More questions are be added at a later stage.
  • Humanitarian colleagues who have been working with the Somali Diaspora in Minnesota for years are now in the process of recruiting trusted members of the community.
  • These trusted members of the Diaspora will participate in a training this weekend on basic survey and interview methods. The training will also provide them with a hands-on introduction to the Ushahidi platform where they’ll  enter the survey results.
  • If everything goes well, these community members will each make several phone calls to friends and relatives back home next week. They’ll ask the questions from the survey and add the answers to the Ushahidi map. Elders in the community will fill out a paper-based form for other colleagues to enter online.
  • Trusted members of the Diaspora will continue to survey contacts back home on a weekly basis. New survey questions are likely to be added based on feedback from other humanitarian organizations. Surveys may also be carried out every other day or even on a daily basis for some of the questions.

If the pilot is successful, then colleagues in Minnesota may recruit additional trusted members of the community to participate in this live crisis mapping effort. There’s a lot more to the project including several subsequent phases but we’re still at the early stages so who knows where this will go. But yes, we’re thinking through the security implications, verification issues, data visualization features, necessary analytics, etc. If all goes well, there’ll be a lot more information to share next week in which case I’ll add more info here and also post an update on the Ushahidi blog.

Africa’s Crossborder Conflicts on Google Earth

This post is an update on the Humanitarian Information Unit’s (HIU) crisis map of crossborder conflicts in Africa. Dennis King at HIU kindly shared with me the shapefiles for the static conflict map so we could create a Google Earth layer from the data. When I write “we”, I actually mean my colleague Lela Prashad who is the co-Executive Director at NiJeL.org.

NiJeL is a member of CrisisMappers and they are doing some phenomenal work in the mapping space. In fact, they have two excellent projects in the Top 15 of USAID’s Development 2.0 Challenge. When Dennis King agreed to share the HIU data, I therefore turned to Lela to create the Google Earth layer.

HIU

The main conclusion to draw from this little exercise is that time matters. Not exactly earth shattering news but let me spell it out nevertheless. Because the underlying data is static, visualizing the data on Google Earth is not as compelling as mapping dynamic event-data, such as HHI’s Crisis Map of Kenya’s Post-Election Violence. That said, the Google Earth layer at least provides the user with far more “spatial freedom” than the PDF version.

HIU2

The Google Earth layer is available here for download. The Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) and I hope to collaborate with NiJeL again in early 2009 to create a dynamic (space-time) crisis map of the recent Georgia/Russia conflict. In the mean time, many, many thanks to both Lela and Dennis for their time and kind support.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Africa’s Crossborder Conflicts on Google Earth

This post is an update on the Humanitarian Information Unit’s (HIU) crisis map of crossborder conflicts in Africa. Dennis King at HIU kindly shared with me the shapefiles for the static conflict map so we could create a Google Earth layer from the data. When I write “we”, I actually mean my colleague Lela Prashad who is the co-Executive Director at NiJeL.org.

NiJeL is a member of CrisisMappers and they are doing some phenomenal work in the mapping space. In fact, they have two excellent projects in the Top 15 of USAID’s Development 2.0 Challenge. When Dennis King agreed to share the HIU data, I therefore turned to Lela to create the Google Earth layer.

HIU

The main conclusion to draw from this little exercise is that time matters. Not exactly earth shattering news but let me spell it out nevertheless. Because the underlying data is static, visualizing the data on Google Earth is not as compelling as mapping dynamic event-data, such as HHI’s Crisis Map of Kenya’s Post-Election Violence. That said, the Google Earth layer at least provides the user with far more “spatial freedom” than the PDF version.

HIU2

The Google Earth layer is available here for download. The Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) and I hope to collaborate with NiJeL again in early 2009 to create a dynamic (space-time) crisis map of the recent Georgia/Russia conflict. In the mean time, many, many thanks to both Lela and Dennis for their time and kind support.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Crisis Mapping Africa’s Crossborder Conflicts

My colleague Dennis King just sent me update on the Humanitarian Information Unit’s (HIU) project, “Africa: Conflicts Without Borders 2007-2008.”

Instead of the usual depiction of conflicts as countrywide and defined by national boundaries, this map displays distinct conflict-affected areas in Africa as sub-national and transnational pockets of insecurity, violence, and armed aggression.  Areas of conflict were drawn around locations of reported conflict incidents in 2007 and 2008, as well as concentrations of internally displaced persons and cross-border rebel bases and refugee camps in neighboring countries.

This depiction of areas of conflict more accurately displays where conflict has been occurring in Africa and the sub-national and transnational nature of these conflicts.  In a follow-on project, this new visualization will be used to analyze the relationship between conflict and geo-spatial factors that are also not related to national boundaries, such as topography, natural resources, demographic distributions, and climatic hazards.

A PDF of the map below is available here.

HIU

The map categorizes conflict-affected areas into three types of conflict:

Armed Conflict, Inter-communal Strife, and Political Violence.  In many cases, armed conflicts and political violence are based on inter-communal strife.  The locations of violent food riots, pirate attacks (as of October 2008) and targeted attacks associated with terrorism during 2007-2008 have also been plotted on this map.  Disputed border conflicts are also identified on this map.

HIU zoom

As I have suggested in earlier blogs, I continue to be surprised that crisis maps are still shared as PDFs or JPGs. The above data should be made available in KML with a simple interface that enables users to query the data they are visualizing. At the very minimum, we should be able to visualize the data over time. I find static data less and less compelling in the context of crisis mapping.

For a Google Earth Layer of the above map, please see my follow up blog post.

Patrick Philippe Meier