Tag Archives: Crisis Mapping

Google’s New Earth Engine for Satellite Imagery Analysis: Applications to Humanitarian Crises

So that’s what they’ve been up to. Google is developing a new computational platform for global-scale analysis of satellite imagery to monitor deforestation. But this is just “the first of many Earth Engine applications that will help scientists, policymakers, and the general public to better monitor and understand the Earth’s ecosystems.”

How about the Earth’s social systems? Humanitarian crises? Armed conflicts? This has been one of the main drivers of the Program on Crisis Mapping and Early Warning (CM&EW) which I co-direct at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) with Dr. Jennifer Leaning. Indeed, we had a meeting with the Google Earth team earlier this year to discuss the development of a computational platform to analyze satellite imagery of humanitarian crises for the purposes of early detection and early response.

In particular, we were interested in determining whether certain spatial patterns could be identified and if so whether we could develop a taxonomy of different spatial patterns of humanitarian crises; something like a library of “crisis finger prints.” As we noted to Google in writing following the conversations,

It is our view that the work of interpretation will be powerfully enhanced by the development of valid patterns relating to issues of importance in specific sets of circumstances that can be reproducibly recognized in satellite imagery. To be sure, the geo-spatial analysis of humanitarian crisis can serve as an important control mechanism for Google’s efforts in extending the functionality of Google Earth and Google’s analytical expertise.

This is something that a consortium of organizations including HHI can get engaged in. Population movement and settlement, shelter options and conditions, environmental threats, access to food and water, are discernible from various elements and resolution levels of satellite imagery.  But much more could be apprehended from these images were patterns assembled and then tested against other information sources and empirical field assessments. For an excellent presentation on this, see my colleague Jennifer Leaning’s excellent Keynote address at ICCM 2009:

The military uses of satellite imagery are far more developed than the humanitarian capacities because the interpretive link between what can be seen in the image and what is actually happening on the ground has been made, in great iterative detail, over a period of many years, encompassing a wide span of geographies and technological deployments. We need to develop a process to explore and validate what can be understood from satellite imagery about key humanitarian concerns by augmenting standard satellite analytics with time-specific and informed assessments of what was concurrently taking place in the location being photographed.

The potential for such applications has just begun to surface in humanitarian circles.  The Darfur Google initiative has demonstrated the force of vivid images of destruction tethered to actual locations of villages across the span of Darfur.  Little further detail is available from the actual images, however, and much of the associated information depicted by clicking on the image is static derived from other sources, somewhat laboriously acquired.  The full power of what might be gleaned simply from the satellite image remains to be explored.

Because systematic and empirical analysis of what a series of satellite images might reveal about humanitarian issues has not yet been undertaken, any effort to draw inferences from current images does not lead far.  The recent coverage of the war in Sri Lanka included satellite photos of the same contested terrain in the northeast, for two time frames, a month apart.  The attempt to determine what had transpired in that interim, relating to population movement, shelter de-construction and reconstruction, and land bombardment, was a matter of conjecture.

Bridging this gap from image to insight will not only be a matter of technological enhancement of satellite imaging. It will require interrogating the satellite images through the filter of questions and concerns that are relevant to humanitarian action and then infusing other kinds of information, gathered through a range of methods, to create visual metrics for understanding what the images project.

There is a lot of exciting work to be done in this space and I do hope that Google will seek to partner with humanitarian organizations and applied research institutes to develop an Earth Engine for Humanitarian Crises. While the technological and analytical breakthroughs are path breaking, let us remember that they can be even more breathtaking by applying them to save lives in humanitarian crises.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Crisis Information and The End of Crowdsourcing

When Wired journalist Jeff Howe coined the term crowdsourcing back in 2006, he did so in contradistinction to the term outsourcing and defined crowdsourcing as tapping the talent of the crowd. The tag line of his article was: “Remember outsourcing? Sending jobs to India and China is so 2003. The new pool of cheap labor: everyday people using their spare cycles to create content, solve problems, even do corporate R & D.”

If I had a tag line for this blog post it would be: “Remember crowdsourcing? Cheap labor to create content and solve problems using the Internet is so 2006. What’s new and cool today is the tapping of official and unofficial sources using new technologies to create and validate quality content.” I would call this allsourcing.

The word “crowdsourcing” is obviously a compound word that combines “crowd” and “sourcing”. But what exactly does “crowd” mean in this respect? And how has “sourcing” changed since Jeff introduced the term crowdsourcing over three-and-a-half years ago?

Lets tackle the question of “sourcing” first. In his June 2006 article on crowdsourcing, Jeff provides case studies that all relate to a novel application of a website and perhaps the most famous example of crowdsourcing is Wikipedia, another website. But we’ve just recently seen some interesting uses of mobile phones to crowdsource information. See Ushahidi or Nathan Eagle’s talk at ETech09, for example:

So the word “sourcing” here goes beyond the website-based e-business approach that Jeff originally wrote about in 2006. The mobile technology component here is key. A “crowd” is not still. A crowd moves, especially in crisis, which is my area of interest. So the term “allsourcing” not only implies collecting information from all sources but also the use of “all” technologies to collect said information in different media.

As for the word “crowd”, I recently noted in this Ushahidi blog post that we may need some qualifiers—namely bounded and unbounded crowdsourcing. In other words, the term “crowd” can mean a large group of people (unbounded crowdsourcing) or perhaps a specific group (bounded crowdsourcing). Unbounded crowdsourcing implies that the identity of individuals reporting the information is unknown whereas bounded crowdsourcing would describe a known group of individuals supplying information.

The term “allsourcing” represents a combination of bounded and unbounded crowdsourcing coupled with new “sourcing” technologies. An allsourcing approach would combined information supplied by known/official sources and unknown/unofficial sources using the Web, e-mail, SMS, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube etc. I think the future of crowdsourcing is allsourcing because allsourcing combines the strengths of both bounded and unbounded approaches while reducing the constraints inherent to each individual approach.

Let me explain. One main important advantage of unbounded crowdsourcing is the ability to collect information from unofficial sources. I consider this an advantage over bounded crowdsourcing since more information can be collected this way. The challenge of course is how to verify the validity of said information. Verifying information is by no means a new process, but unbounded crowdsourcing has the potential to generate a lot more information than bounded crowdsourcing since the former does not censor unofficial content. This presents a challenge.

At the same time, bounded crowdsourcing has the advantage of yielding reliable information since the reports are produced by known/official sources. However, bounded crowdsourcing is constrained to a relatively small number of individuals doing the reporting. Obviously, these individuals cannot be everywhere at the same time. But if we combined bounded and unbounded crowdsourcing, we would see an increase in (1) overall reporting, and (2) in the ability to validate reports from unknown sources.

The increased ability to validate information is due to the fact that official and unofficial sources can be triangulated when using an allsourcing approach. Given that official sources are considered trusted sources, any reports from unofficial sources that match official reports can be considered more reliable along with their associated sources. And so the combined allsourcing approach in effect enables the identification of new reliable sources even if the identify of these sources remains unknown.

Ushahidi is good example of an allsourcing platform. Organizations can use Ushahidi to capture both official and unofficial sources using all kinds of new sourcing technologies. Allsourcing is definitely something new so there’s still much to learn. I have a hunch that there is huge potential. Jeff Howe titled his famous article in Wired “The Rise of Crowdsourcing.” Will a future edition of Wired include an article on “The Rise of Allsourcing”?

Patrick Philippe Meier

New Tech in Emergencies and Conflicts: Role of Information and Social Networks

I had the distinct pleasure of co-authoring this major new United Nations Foundation & Vodafone Foundation Technology Report with my distinguished colleague Diane Coyle. The report looks at innovation in the use of technology along the time line of crisis response, from emergency preparedness and alerts to recovery and rebuilding.

“It profiles organizations whose work is advancing the frontlines of innovation, offers an overview of international efforts to increase sophistication in the use of IT and social networks during emergencies, and provides recommendations for how governments, aid groups, and international organizations can leverage this innovation to improve community resilience.”

Case studies include:

  • Global Impact and Vulnerability Alert System (GIVAS)
  • European Media Monitor (EMM, aka OPTIMA)
  • Emergency Preparedness Information Center (EPIC)
  • Ushahidi Crowdsourcing Crisis Information
  • Télécoms sans Frontières (TSF)
  • Impact of Social Networks in Iran
  • Social Media, Citizen Journalism and Mumbai Terrorist Attacks
  • Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System (GDACS)
  • AAAS Geospatial Technologies for Human Rights
  • Info Technology for Humanitarian Assistance, Cooperation and Action (ITHACA)
  • Camp Roberts
  • OpenStreetMap and Walking Papers
  • UNDP Threat and Risk Mapping Analysis project (TRMA)
  • Geo-Spatial Info Analysis for Global Security, Stability Program (ISFEREA)
  • FrontlineSMS
  • M-PESA and M-PAISA
  • Souktel

I think this long and diverse list of case studies clearly shows that the field of humanitarian technology is coming into it’s own.  Have a look at the report to learn how all these fit in the ecosystem of humanitarian technologies. And check out the tag #Tech4Dev on Twitter or the UN Foundation’s Facebook page to discuss the report and feel free to add any comments to this blog post below. I’m happy to answer all questions. In the meantime, I salute the UN Foundation for producing a forward looking report on projects that are barely two years old, and some just two months old.

Patrick Philippe Meier

From Baselines to Basemaps: Crisis Mapping for Monitoring & Evaluation (M&E)

I was just in Berlin for meetings with Transparency International and the topic of mapping for Monitoring & Evaluation came up yet again. Earlier this year, Mercy Corps and UNDP Sudan both expressed an interest in exploring the application of crisis mapping platforms for M&E. Problem is, the field of M&E—particularly with regards to peacebuilding and post-conflict reconstruction—is devoid of any references to mapping.

As part of my consulting work with UNDP Sudan, I therefore produced a short concept paper this topic back in June. Here’s a summary of what I wrote.


Peacebuilding and post-conflict reconstruction programs necessarily operate within a dynamic environment. This means that they must adapt to changing circumstances or else run the risk of misallocating resources or worse, exacerbating tensions not to mention creating new sources of violent conflict. Hence the need for conflict sensitive programming, which UNDP’s TRMA initiative is designed to support in the Sudan.

The threat and risk maps produced by UNDP provide spatial risk assessments that can inform programmatic response in Sudan’s post-conflict states. This need not be a one-off decision-support exercise, however. Indeed, the use of spatial risk assessments updated over time is an even more compelling use of crisis maps for decision-support.

A changing post-conflict environment means that projects designed half-a-year ago may no longer be having the intended impact they were funded to have. To this end, it is important that UN and local-government partners have regular updates on the changing context in order to adapt programming respectively. Crisis mapping can play a pivotal role in this decision support process.


I therefore propose a new approach to crisis mapping called “basemapping”. The purpose of basemapping is to combine M&E and crisis mapping to produce basemaps against which projects can be monitored and evaluated. The basemapping process constitutes three distinct mapping steps:

1. Ideal World Basemapping: mapping the ideal world that a given project seeks to achieve over a given period of time.

2. Real World Basemapping: mapping the current state of affairs in the specific world that the project seeks to change

3. Changed World Basemapping: ongoing mapping to compare the change between the ideal world and real world basemaps.

The following section provides a brief background to M&E and formulates a proposed methodology for basemapping. As basemapping is a new concept that has little to no precedent, the purpose of the proposed methodology is to catalyze discussion on the subject and to make the methodology more sophisticated over time.

Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E)

A strong M&E framework will include theories and types of change, an achievable goal with clear objectives, outputs and activities as well as reliable indicators and baselines. However, M&E frameworks should be case-specific and must be tailored to the purpose of individual projects. This deliverable assumes that UNDP is already well versed in M&E frameworks and methodologies. The analysis that follows thus focuses specifically on the contributing role of crisis mapping to the M&E process.

Baselines are the most often forgotten component within design, monitoring and evaluation, yet they are key to proving that change has truly taken place. They also provide the most intuitive link to crisis mapping. While baselines typically represent a snapshot in time and space against which deviations represent progress or failure, the concept of “basemaps” can play the same role albeit dynamically.

Perhaps the closest analogy to baselines in the field of conflict analysis is the conflict assessment. A conflict assessment is an exploration of the realities of the conflict and an analysis of its underlying causes. An assessment can be done at any time, independently of a program or as a part of an existing program. Assessments are often conducted to determine whether an intervention is needed and, if so, what type of intervention.

Assessments (or risk assessments) are also typically carried out as a first step in the development of a conflict early warning system. They serve to identify appropriate conflict early warning indicators. In a sense, an assessment is the basis from which the programming will be designed. Conversely, a baseline identifies the status of the targeted change before the project starts but after it has been designed.

M&E experts caution that assessments and baselines should not be blended together. Nor do they suggest using one as a substitute for the other since their raison d’être, focus, and implementation are very different. We beg to differ and would even go so far as proposing that dynamic crisis mapping platforms can bring both conflict assessments and M&E baselines together with considerable added value.

To explain the potential of basemaps in more detail, a sound understanding of baselines is important. A baseline provides a starting point or reference from which a comparison can be made.  Baselines are conducted prior to the beginning of a program intervention and are the point of comparison for monitoring and evaluation data. The bulk of baseline studies focus on the intended outcomes of a project. They can also take into account secondary outcomes and assumptions, though these are not the primary emphasis.

Baseline information can be used in a number of ways. Perhaps the most intuitive application is the comparison of baseline information with subsequent information to show the change (or lack thereof) that has taken place over time (again, change over space is all-too often ignored). Baseline information can also be used to refine programming decisions or set achievable and realistic targets. Finally, baseline information enables monitoring data to have greater utility earlier in the project cycle.

Baselines have three possible focus areas: change, secondary outcomes and assumptions: change, secondary changes and assumptions. It is important that DAI and partners agree on the formulation of an M&E framework that clearly focuses on one of these focus areas. Note that the first area, change, is required of all baselines, while the other two are optional depending on the project.

Towards Dynamic Basemaps

Conflict, or threat and risk data, typically has a geographic dimension. Consequently, baseline data on conflict dynamics also have a geographic element. To this end, it makes far more sense to use basemaps than baselines since the former includes spatially relevant information that changes over time, which is necessarily important for decision-making vis-à-vis programmatic response in post-conflict environments.

UNDP’s TRMA enjoys a distinctive advantage in this respect since the project already maps threat and risk data (via hard-copy print-outs and a dynamic mapping tools called the 4W’s). The main handicap at the moment is the lack of regularly updated threat and risk data in order to visualize change over time. That said, the TRMA team is planning to shift towards more regular data collection, which will make the use of the 4Ws even more compelling for M&E purposes.

In the meantime, drawing on the use of baselines for M&E can guide the development of a general methodology for basemaps. This deliverable assumes that a standard M&E framework has already been developed for a given project. The challenge is to now translate this framework into a basemap. Recall that a strong M&E framework will include theories and types of change, an achievable goal with clear objectives, outputs and activities as well as reliable indicators and baselines. The first step, then, is to consider the theory (or theories) of change formulated for a given project.

Theories of change help planners and evaluators stay aware of the assumptions behind their choices, verify that the activities and objectives are logically aligned, and identify opportunities for integrated programming to spark synergies and leverage greater results. Types of change refer to specific changes expressed in the actual program design and/or evaluation, either as goals, objectives, or indicators.  Common examples include changes in behavior, practice, process, status, etc.  Both the theory of change and the types of changes sought should be evident in a well-designed program.

Although theories and types of change may not have obvious or intuitive geographical dimensions, it is important for “basemapping” to start thinking in geographical terms from the first step in the M&E process. Take “the reduction of violence theory of change,” which suggests that peace will result as we reduce the levels of violence perpetrated by combatants or their representatives. Methods include cease-fires, introduction of peacekeeping forces and conflict sensitive programming, for example. Cease-fires, peacekeeping operations and conflict sensitive development all have a geographical component. So the point is simply to ask the question “Where?” and to ensure the answer is woven into the theory of change.

Next, the basemapping process should consider the program design, e.g., the design hierarchy:

  • Goal: broadest change in the conflict.
  • Objectives: types of changes that are prerequisites to achieve stated goal.
  • Outputs: deliverables or products, often tangible from the activities.
  • Activities: concrete events or services performed.

Each element in the design hierarchy has a spatial component. The goal is to be achieved in a specific location or locations. So are the objectives, outputs and activities. Again, this geographical dimension needs to be explicitly articulated in each step of the hierarchy. The first phase of the basemapping process is about fully geographically mapping a project’s design hierarchy (social network mapping is also possible but not included in this deliverable).

In essence, the first phase of basemapping is to map the “ideal world” that a given project is mean to achieve. The second phase of basemapping comprises the mapping of a standard albeit georeferenced baseline of indicators. This phase seeks to capture an accurate picture of the current state of affairs in the “real world” and is in effect a conflict or risk assessment. Many conflict/risk assessment frameworks have already been developed and applied so this will not be duplicated here.

The third phase of basemapping comes after “Ideal World” and “Real World” mapping. The purpose of “Changed World” basemapping is to compare ideal and real world basemaps in order to isolate any positive changes that can be attributed to the project being implemented. The purpose of basemaps is not to prove causation but rather to suggest correlation.

Perhaps the most critical component of “Changed World” basemaps is the selection of the “change indicators”. That is, identifying those indicators that can geographically denote whether program activities are in fact change the real world as intended. Often, these indicators will already have been identified during standard baseline studies and simply need to be tied to specific geographic coordinates. In other situations, proxy indicators with a deliberate geographic dimension will need to be identified.

The temporal resolution of “change indicators” also needs to be a deliberate decision. For example, these geo-referenced indicators can be monitored on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. Mobile technology such as mobile phones and PDAs can be used to document change indicators and map them in quasi-real time. The Ushahidi mapping platform could be ideal for basemapping in this regards.

Basemapping and Decision-Support

Basemapping should not be considered distinct from decision-support processes and tools. This is particularly true of “Changed World Basemapping” which is meant to highlight in space and time the difference between the “Ideal World” and “Real World” basemaps. In other words, “Changed World Basemapping” should draw on geospatial analysis to create “heat maps” (and other relevant visualization techniques) to depict progress towards the ideal world in both time and space.

It is precisely because heat maps depict change that they should be considered as decision-support tools, particularly if these are viewed on a dynamic platform that permits the user to query and analyze the heat map. To this end, the purpose of basemapping is to combine M&E, conflict assessment and decision support by using one-and-only one integrated dynamic mapping tool.

Basemap Challenges

Like any new idea and methodology, there are important challenges that need to be addressed. For example, projects are likely to have impact at different spatial levels. How do we capture cross-scale effects? In addition, how do we introduce (spatial) control variables in order to isolate intervening (spatial) variables? Finally, can control groups be introduced in order to provide compelling evidence of impact or does this raise some important ethical issues as has happened in other fields?

Patrick Philippe Meier

Applying Technology to Crisis Mapping and Early Warning in Humanitarian Settings

The Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) just published a working paper I co-authored with my colleague Dr. Jennifer Leaning. Jennifer and I co-founded the Program on Crisis Mapping and Early Warning (CM&EW) back in 2007 with the generous support of Humanity United (HU).

During this two-year period, HU commissioned a series of internal working papers to inform their thinking in the field of crisis mapping. The report just published by HHI is one of the first internal papers we produced for HU. I am particularly indebted to my HHI colleague Enzo Bollettino for pushing this initiative working paper series at HHI.

This inaugural working paper presents a conceptual framework that distinguishes between the “big world” and “small world” to assess the use of ICTs for communication in conflict zones. The study does so by delineating the multiple information pathways relevant for conflict early warning, crisis mapping and humanitarian response.

The second and third working paper in the series will address information collection and visual analysis respectively. Each working paper will highlight existing projects or case studies; draw on informative anecdotes; and/or relay the most recent thinking on future applications of ICTs.

This working paper series is not meant to be exhaustive since humanitarian tech as a field of study and practice is still in formative phases. The analysis that follows is simply one step forward in trying to understand where the field is headed. We very much welcome feedback and input from fellow colleagues in the community. Feel free to use the comments section below to share your thoughts.

The working paper is available on the website of HHI’s Crisis Mapping Program.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Applying Fluid Dynamics to Crisis Mapping

The Economist just published a fascinating article on fluid dynamics called “The Skeleton of Water” which may have important implications for Crisis Mapping Analytics. We often speak of conflict in terms of waves, e.g., “preventing the next wave of conflict,” but there may be more to the analogy than meets the eye.

Source: The Economist

One of the main challenges that Crisis Mapping Analytics faces is the complexity involved in modeling conflict dynamics over space and time. But we’re hardly the first to face this challenge. Take the field of fluid dynamics, which is the subject of the article in question. Breakthrough research now reveals that hidden structures within liquids and gasses guide the movement of everything from pollution to airplanes.

The atmosphere and the ocean are, it seems, dominated by invisible barriers that have come to be known as Lagrangian Coherent Structures.

To understand what a Lagrangian Coherent Structure [LCS] is, it helps to imagine a crowd at a railway terminus [...]. Some people will be arriving. Some will be leaving. And, whichever they are doing, they will be going to and from numerous different platforms.

The result is chaos, but structured chaos. What emerges is a shifting pattern of borders between groups of people with different goals. These borders are Lagrangian coherent structures. They are intangible, immaterial and would be undetectable if the passengers stopped moving. But they are also real enough to be treated mathematically.

And it turns out to be easier to study the behaviour of such fluids by looking at the barriers than at the bodies of fluid which those barriers separate.

Scientists across numerous fields are now jumping on the Lagrangian bandwagon to explore the applicability of LCS to their work.

For example, a professor at CalTech recently “used the technique to study the hunting behaviour of jellyfish. He has shown how parts of the ocean are temporarily protected from the depredations of these creatures because they cannot cross the invisible barriers imposed by Lagrange.” Meanwhile, another professor notes that “the coherent-structure approach might also be used to help predictions of the passage of hurricanes; they, too, are constrained by the invisible barriers that Lagrange’s theory describes.”

There is also reason to believe that conflict follows a power law (like earthquakes, forest fires, etc.). In other words, conflict may be scale invariant. This may imply that there is no “average size” of conflict regardless of scale, i.e., from interpersonal to international conflict. As it turns out,  “Lagrangian coherent structures can appear at all sorts of scales. What goes for an airport or a bay can be scaled up to an ocean, or the air above it, and down to the flow off an aircraft’s wingtip, or a ship’s hull.”

One of the exciting conclusions from this latest research in fluid dynamics is that “boundaries between things are often as important as the things themselves.” In other words, we need to think more about what artists call negative space, which is “ the space around and between the subject(s) of an image. Negative space may be most evident when the space around a subject, and not the subject itself, forms an interesting or artistically relevant shape, and such space is occasionally used to artistic effect as the “real” subject of an image.”

Take the following picture, for example.

Source: Wikipedia

There is an intimate relationship between the object and the space around it. Negative spaces are important because they may reveal otherwise hidden patterns. In crisis mapping, like fluid dynamics, we need to delineate this negative space over time to identify patterns in three dimensional space. This is what the mathematics of Lagrangian Coherent Structures may allow us to do.

And so, it is very tempting to start thinking about conflict (and peace) in terms of fluid dynamics given the context of crisis mapping. Have we been too preoccupied with crisis data instead of modeling the boundaries and event trajectories? Perhaps conflict flows like a river, with turbulent eddies producing violent pathways while other areas are clear, still pools of peace. So why not collaborate with mathematicians to find out whether LCS’s can shed light on why “islands of peace” sometimes exist in a sea of conflict?

Patrick Philippe Meier with Guest Blogger Jen Ziemke

Crowdsourcing for Peace Mapping

Lynda Gratton at the London Business School gave one of the best Keynote speeches that I’ve heard all year. Her talk was a tour de force on how to catalyze innovation and one of her core recommendations really hit home for me: “If you really want to be at the cutting edge of innovation, then you better make sure that 20% of your team is under the age of 27.” Lynda upholds this principle in all her business ventures.

I find this absolutely brilliant, which explains why I prefer teaching undergraduate seminars and why I always try to keep in touch with former students. Without fail, they continue to be an invaluable source of inspiration and innovative thinking.

A former student of mine, Adam White, recently introduced me to another undergraduate student at Tufts University, Rachel Brown. Rachel is a perfect example of why I value interacting with bright young minds. She wants to return to Kenya next year to identify and connect local peace initiatives in Nairobi in preparation for the 2012 elections.

Rachel was inspired by the story of Solo 7, a Kenyan graffiti artist in Kibera who drew messages of peace throughout the slum as a way to prevent violence from escalating shortly after the elections. “Imagine,” she said, “if we could identify all the Solo 7’s of Nairobi, all the individuals and local communities engaged in promoting peace.”

I understood at once why Adam recommended I meet with Rachel: Ushahidi.

I immediately told Rachel about Ushahidi, a free and open source platform that uses crowdsourcing to map crisis information. I suggested she consider using the platform to crowdsource and map local peace initiatives across Kenya, not just Nairobi. I’ve been so focused on crisis mapping that I’ve completely ignored my previous work in the field of conflict early warning. An integral part of this field is to monitor indicators of conflict and cooperation.

There are always pockets of cooperation no matter how dire a conflict is. Even in Nazi Germany and the Rwandan genocide we find numerous stories of people risking their lives to save others. The fact is that most people, most of the time in most places choose cooperation over conflict. If that weren’t the case, we’d be living in state of total war as described by Clausewitz.

If we only monitor indicators of war and violence, then that’s all we’ll see. Our crisis maps only depict a small part of reality. It is incredibly important that we also map indicators of peace and cooperation. By identifying the positive initiatives that exist before and during a crisis, we automatically identify multiple entry points for intervention and a host of options for conflict prevention. If we only map conflict, then we may well identify where most of the conflict is taking place, but we won’t necessarily know who in the area might be best placed to intervene.

Documenting peace and cooperation also has positive psychological effects. How often do we lament the fact that the only kind of news available in the media is bad news? We turn on CNN or BBC and there’s bad news—sometimes breaking news of bad news. It’s easy to get depressed and to assume that only bad things happen. But violence is actually very rare statistically speaking. The problem is that we don’t systematically document peace, which means that our perceptions are completely skewed.

Take the following anecdote, which occurred to me several years ago when I taught my first undergraduate course on conflict early warning systems. I was trying to describe the important psychological effects of documenting peace and cooperation by using the example of the London underground (subway).

If you’ve been to London, you’ve probably experienced the frequent problems and delays with the underground system. And like most other subway systems, announcements are made to inform passengers of annoying delays and whatnot. But unlike other subway systems I’ve used, the London underground also makes announcements to let passengers know that all lines are currently running on time.

Now lets take this principle and apply it to Rachel’s project proposal combined with Ushahidi. Imagine if she were to promote the crowdsourcing of local peace initiatives all across Kenya. She could work with national and local media to get the word out. Individuals could send text messages to report what kinds of peace activities they are involved in.

This would allow Rachel and others to follow up on select text messages to learn more about each activity. In fact, she could use Ushahidi’s customizable reporting forms to ask individuals texting in information to elaborate on their initiatives. Rachel wants to commit no less than a year to this project, which should give her and colleagues plenty of time to map hundreds of local peace initiatives across Kenya.

Just imagine a map covered with hundreds of doves or peace dots representing local peace initiatives? What a powerful image. The Peace Map would be public, so that anyone with Internet access could learn about the hundreds of different peace initiatives in Kenya. Kenyan peace activists themselves could make use of this map to learn about creative approaches to conflict prevention and conflict management. They could use Ushashidi’s subscription feature to receive automatic updates when a new peace project is reported in their neighborhood, town or province.

When peace activists (and anyone else, for that matter) find peace projects they like on Ushahidi’s Peace Map, they can “befriend” that project, much like the friend feature in Facebook. That way they can receive updates from a particular project via email, SMS or even Twitter. These updates could include information on how to get involved. When two projects (or two individuals) are connected this way, Ushahidi could depict the link on the map with a line connecting the two nodes.

Imagine if this Peace Map were then shown on national television in the lead up to the elections. Not only would there be hundreds of peace dots representing individual peace efforts, but many of these would be linked, depicting a densely connected peace network.

The map could also be printed in Kenya’s national and local newspapers. I think a Peace Map of Kenya would send a powerful message that Kenyans want peace and won’t stand for a repeat of the 2007 post-election violence. When the elections do happen, this Peace Map could be used operationally to quickly respond to any signs of escalating tensions.

Rachel could use the Peace Map to crowdsource reports of any election violence that might take place. Local peace activists could use Ushahidi’s subscription feature to receive alerts of violent events taking place in their immediate vicinity. They would receive these via email and/or SMS in near real-time.

This could allow peace activists to mobilize and quickly respond to escalating signs of violence, especially if preparedness measures and contingency plans already in place. This is what I call fourth generation conflict early warning and early response (4G). See this blog post for more on 4G systems. This is where The Third Side framework for conflict resolution meets the power of new technology platforms like Ushahidi.

It is when I meet inspiring students like Rachel that I wish I were rich so I could just write checks to turn innovative ideas into reality. The next best thing I can do is to work with Rachel and her undergraduate friends to write up a strong proposal. So if you want to get involved or you know a donor, foundation or a philanthropist who might be interested in funding Rachel’s project, please do email me so I can put you directly in touch with her: Patrick@iRevolution.net.

In the meantime, if you’re about to start a project, remember Lynda’s rule of thumb: make sure 20% of your team is under 27. You won’t regret it.

Patrick Philippe Meier