Tag Archives: WarViews

A Brief History of Crisis Mapping (Updated)

Introduction

One of the donors I’m in contact with about the proposed crisis mapping conference wisely recommended I add a big-picture background to crisis mapping. This blog post is my first pass at providing a brief history of the field. In a way, this is a combined summary of several other posts I have written on this blog over the past 12 months plus my latest thoughts on crisis mapping.

Evidently, this account of history is very much influenced by my own experience so I may have unintentionally missed a few relevant crisis mapping projects. Note that by crisis  I refer specifically to armed conflict and human rights violations. As usual, I welcome any feedback and comments you may have so I can improve my blog posts.

From GIS to Neogeography: 2003-2005

The field of dynamic crisis mapping is new and rapidly changing. The three core drivers of this change are the increasingly available and accessible of (1) open-source, dynamic mapping tools; (2) mobile data collection technologies; and lastly (3) the development of new methodologies.

Some experts at the cutting-edge of this change call the results “Neogeography,” which is essentially about “people using and creating their own maps, on their own terms and by combining elements of an existing toolset.” The revolution in applications for user-generated content and mobile technology provides the basis for widely distributed information collection and crowdsourcing—a term coined by Wired less than three years ago. The unprecedented rise in citizen journalism is stark evidence of this revolution. New methodologies for conflict trends analysis increasingly take spatial and/or inter-annual dynamics into account and thereby reveal conflict patterns that otherwise remain hidden when using traditional methodologies.

Until recently, traditional mapping tools were expensive and highly technical geographic information systems (GIS), proprietary software that required extensive training to produce static maps.

In terms of information collection, trained experts traditionally collected conflict and human rights data and documented these using hard-copy survey forms, which typically became proprietary once completed. Scholars began coding conflict event-data but data sharing was the exception rather than the rule.

With respect to methodologies, the quantitative study of conflict trends was virtually devoid of techniques that took spatial dynamics into account because conflict data at the time was largely macro-level data constrained by the “country-year straightjacket.”

That is, conflict data was limited to the country-level and rarely updated more than once a year, which explains why methodologies did not seek to analyze sub-national and inter-annual variations for patterns of conflict and human rights abuses. In addition, scholars in the political sciences were more interested in identifying when conflict as likely to occur as opposed to where. For a more in-depth discussion of this issue, please see my paper from 2006  “On Scale and Complexity in Conflict Analysis” (PDF).

Neogeography is Born: 2005

The pivotal year for dynamic crisis mapping was 2005. This is the year that Google rolled out Google Earth. The application marks an important milestone in Neogeography because the free, user-friendly platform drastically reduced the cost of dynamic and interactive mapping—cost in terms of both availability and accessibility. Microsoft has since launched Virual Earth to compete with Google Earth and other  potential contenders.

Interest in dynamic crisis mapping did exist prior to the availability of Google Earth. This is evidenced by the dynamic mapping initiatives I took at Swisspeace in 2003. I proposed that the organization use GIS tools to visualize, animate and analyze the geo-referenced conflict event-data collected by local Swisspeace field monitors in conflict-ridden countries—a project called FAST. In a 2003 proposal, I defined dynamic crisis maps as follows:

FAST Maps are interactive geographic information systems that enable users of leading agencies to depict a multitude of complex interdependent indicators on a user-friendly and accessible two-dimensional map. […] Users have the option of selecting among a host of single and composite events and event types to investigate linkages [between events]. Events and event types can be superimposed and visualized through time using FAST Map’s animation feature. This enables users to go beyond studying a static picture of linkages to a more realistic dynamic visualization.

I just managed to dig up old documents from 2003 and found the interface I had designed for FAST Maps using the template at the time for Swisspeace’s website.

fast-map1

fast-map2

However, GIS software was (and still is) prohibitively expensive and highly technical. To this end, Swisspeace was not compelled to make the necessary investments in 2004 to develop the first crisis mapping platform for producing dynamic crisis maps using geo-referenced conflict data. In hindsight, this was the right decision since Google Earth was rolled out the following year.

Enter PRIO and GROW-net: 2006-2007

With the arrival of Google Earth, a variety of dynamic crisis maps quickly emerged. In fact, one if not the first application of Google Earth for crisis mapping was carried out in 2006 by Jen Ziemke and I. We independently used Google Earth and newly available data from the Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO) to visualize conflict data over time and space. (Note that both Jen and I were researchers at PRIO between 2006-2007).

Jen used Google Earth to explain the dynamics and spatio-temporal variation in violence during the Angolan war. To do this, she first coded nearly 10,000 battle and massacre events as reported in the Portuguese press that took place over a 40 year period.

Meanwhile, I produced additional dynamic crisis maps of the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) for PRIO and of the Colombian civil war for the Conflict Analysis Resource Center (CARC) in Bogota. At the time, researchers in Oslo and Bogota used proprietary GIS software to produce static maps (PDF) of their newly geo-referenced conflict data. PRIO eventually used Google Earth but only to publicize the novelty of their new geo-referenced historical conflict datasets.

Since then, PRIO has continued to play an important role in analyzing the spatial dynamics of armed conflict by applying new quantitative methodologies. Together with universities in Europe, the Institute formed the Geographic Representations of War-net (GROW-net) in 2006, with the goal of “uncovering the causal mechanisms that generate civil violence within relevant historical and geographical and historical configurations.” In 2007, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH), a member of GROW-net, produced dynamic crisis maps using Google Earth for a project called WarViews.

Crisis Mapping Evolves: 2007-2008

More recently, Automated Crisis Mapping (ACM), real-time and automated information collection mechanisms using natural language processing (NLP) have been developed for the automated and dynamic mapping of disaster and health-related events. Examples of such platforms include the Global Disaster Alert and Crisis System (GDACS), CrisisWire, Havaria and HealthMap. Similar platforms have been developed for  automated mapping of other news events, such as Global Incident Map, BuzzTracker, Development Seed’s Managing the News, and the Joint Research Center’s European Media Monitor.

Equally recent is the development of Mobile Crisis Mapping (MCM), mobile crowdsourcing platforms designed for the dynamic mapping of conflict and human rights data as exemplified by Ushahidi (with FrontLineSMS) and the Humanitarian Sensor Web (SensorWeb).

Another important development around this time is the practice of participatory GIS preceded by the recognition that social maps and conflict maps can empower local communities and be used for conflict resolution. Like maps of natural disasters and environmental degradation, these can be developed and discussed at the community level to engage conversation and joint decision-making. This is a critical component since one of the goals of crisis mapping is to empower individuals to take better decisions.

HHI’s Crisis Mapping Project: 2007-2009

The Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) is currently playing a pivotal role in crafting the new field of dynamic crisis mapping. Coordinated by Jennifer Leaning and myself, HHI is completing a two-year applied research project on Crisis Mapping and Early Warning. This project comprised a critical and comprehensive evaluation of the field and the documentation of lessons learned, best practices as well as alternative and innovative approaches to crisis mapping and early warning.

HHI also acts as an incubator for new projects and  supported the conceptual development of new crisis mapping platforms like Ushahidi and the SensorWeb. In addition, HHI produced the first comparative and dynamic crisis map of Kenya by drawing on reports from the mainstream media, citizen journalists and Ushahidi to analyze spatial and temporal patterns of conflict events and communication flows during a crisis.

HHI’s Sets a Research Agenda: 2009

HHI has articulated an action-oriented research agenda for the future of crisis mapping based on the findings from the two-year crisis mapping project. This research agenda can be categorized into the following three areas, which were coined by HHI:

  1. Crisis Map Sourcing
  2. Mobile Crisis Mapping
  3. Crisis Mapping Analytics

1) Crisis Map Sourcing (CMS) seeks to further research on the challenge of visualizing disparate sets of data ranging from structural and dynamic data to automated and mobile crisis mapping data. The challenge of CMS is to develop appropriate methods and best practices for mashing data from Automated Crisis Mapping (ACM) tools and Mobile Crisis Mapping platforms (see below) to add value to Crisis Mapping Analytics (also below).

2) The purpose of setting an applied-research agenda for Mobile Crisis Mapping, or MCM, is to recognize that the future of distributed information collection and crowdsourcing will be increasingly driven by mobile technologies and new information ecosystems. This presents the crisis mapping community with a host of pressing challenges ranging from data validation and manipulation to data security.

These hurdles need to be addressed directly by the crisis mapping community so that new and creative solutions can be applied earlier rather than later. If the persistent problem of data quality is not adequately resolved, then policy makers may question the reliability of crisis mapping for conflict prevention, rapid response and the documentation of human rights violations. Worse still, inaccurate data may put lives at risk.

3) Crisis Mapping Analytics (CMA) is the third critical area of research set by HHI. CMA is becoming increasingly important given the unprecedented volume of geo-referenced data that is rapidly becoming available. Existing academic platforms like WarViews and operational MCM platforms like Ushahidi do not include features that allow practitioners, scholars and the public to query the data and to visually analyze and identify the underlying spatial dynamics of the conflict and human rights data. This is largely true of Automated Crisis Mapping (ACM) tools as well.

In other words, new and informative metrics are need to be developed to identify patterns in human rights abuses and violent conflict both retrospectively and in real-time. In addition, existing techniques from spatial econometrics need to be rendered more accessible to non-statisticians and built into existing dynamic crisis mapping platforms.

Conclusion

Jen Ziemke and I thus conclude that the most pressing need in the field of crisis mapping is to bridge the gap between scholars and practitioners who self-identify as crisis mappers. This is the most pressing issue because bridging that divide will enable the field of crisis mapping to effectively and efficiently move forward by pursuing the three research agendas set out by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI).

We think this is key to moving the crisis-mapping field into more mainstream humanitarian and human rights work—i.e., operational response. But doing so first requires that leading crisis mapping scholars and practitioners proactively bridge the existing gap. This is the core goal of the crisis mapping conference that we propose to organize.

Patrick Philippe Meier

NeoGeography and Crisis Mapping Analytics

WarViews is Neogeography

Colleagues at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH) are starting to publish their research on the WarViews project. I first wrote about this project in 2007 as part of an HHI deliverable on Crisis Mapping for Humanity United. What appeals to me about WarViews is the initiative’s total “Neogeography” approach.

WarView

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What is Neogeography? Surprisingly, WarViews‘s first formal publication (Weidmann and Kuse, 2009) does not use the term but my CrisisMappers colleague Andrew Turner wrote the defining chapter on Neogeography for O’Reilly back in 2006:

Neogeography means ‘new geography’ and consists of a set of techniques and tools that fall outside the realm of traditional GIS, Geographic Information Systems. Where historically a professional cartographer might use ArcGIS, talk of Mercator versus Mollweide projections, and resolve land area disputes, a neogeographer uses a mapping API like Google Maps, talks about GPX versus KML, and geotags his photos to make a map of his summer vacation.

Essentially, Neogeography is about people using and creating their own maps, on their own terms and by combining elements of an existing toolset. Neogeography is about sharing location information with friends and visitors, helping shape context, and conveying understanding through knowledge of place.

Compare this language with Wiedmann and Kuse, 2009:

[The] use of geographic data requires specialized software and substantial training and therefore involves high entry costs for researchers and practitioners. [The] War Views project [aims] to create an easy-to-use front end for the exploration of GIS data on conflict. It takes advantage of the recent proliferation of Internet-based geographic software and makes geographic data on conflict available for these tools.

With WarViews, geographic data on conflict can be accessed, browsed, and time-animated in a few mouse clicks, using only standard software. As a result, a wider audience can take advantage of the valuable data contained in these databases […].

The team in Zurich used the free GIS server software GeoServer, which reads “vector data in various formats, including the shapefile format used for many conflict-related GIS data sets.” This way, WarViews allows users to visualize data both statically and dynamically using Google Earth.

Evidently, the WarViews project is not groundbreaking compared to many of the applied mapping projects carried out by the CrisisMappers Group. (Colleagues and I in Boston created a Google Earth layer of DRC and Colombia conflict data well before WarViews came online).

That said the academic initiative at the University of Zurich is an important step forward for neogeography and an exciting development for political scientists interested in studying the geographic dimensions of conflict data.

Geographic Data

Geo-tagged conflict data is becoming more widely available. My Alma Matter, the Peace Research Institute in Oslo (PRIO), has made an important contribution with the Armed Conflict Location and Event Dataset (ACLED). This dataset includes geo-tagged conflict data for 12 countries between 1946 to present time.

In addition to ACLED, Wiedman and Kus (2009) also reference two additional geo-tagged datasets. The first is the Political Instability Task Force’s Worldwide Atrocities Dataset (PITF), which comprises a comprehensive collection of violent events against noncombatants. The second is the Peacekeeping Operations Locations and Event Dataset (Doroussen 2007, PDF), which provides geo-tagged data on interventions in civil wars. This dataset is not yet public.

Weidmann and Kuse (2009) do not mention Ushahidi, a Mobile Crisis Mapping (CMC) platform nor do the authors reference HHI’s Google Earth Crisis Map of Kenya’s Post-Election violence (2008). Both initiatives provide unique geo-tagged peace and conflict data. Ushahidi has since been deployed in the DRC, Zimbabwe and Gaza.

Unlike the academic databases referenced above, the Ushahidi data is crowdsourced and geo-tagged in quasi-real time. Given Ushahidi’s rapid deployment to other conflict zones, we can expect a lot more geo-tagged information in 2009. The question is, will we know how to analyze this data to detect patterns?

Crisis Mapping Analytics (CMA)

The WarViews project is “not designed for sophisticated analyses of geographic data […].” This is perhaps ironic given that academics across multiple disciplines have developed a plethora of computational methods and models to analyze geographic data over time and space. These techniques necessarily require advanced expertise in spatial econometric analysis and statistics.

The full potential of neography will only be realized when we have more accessible ways to analyze the data visualized on platforms like Google Earth. Neogeography brought dynamic mapping to many more users, but spatial econometric analysis has no popular equivalent.

This is why I introduced the term Crisis Mapping Analytics (CMA) back in August 2008 and why I blogged about the need to develop the new field of CMA here and here. The Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) is now spearheading the development of CMA metrics given the pressing need for more accessible albeit rigorous methods to identify patterns in crisis mapping for the purposes of early warning. Watching data played on Google Earth over and over will only take us so far, especially as new volumes of disparate datasets become available in 2009.

HHI is still in conversation with a prospective donor to establish the new field of CMA so I’m unable to outline the metrics we developed here but hope the donor will provide HHI with some funding so we can partner and collaborate with other groups to formalize the field of CMA.

Crisis Mapping Conference

In the meantime, my colleague Jen Ziemke and I are exploring the possibility of organizing a 2-3 day conference on crisis mapping for Fall 2009. The purpose of the conference is to shape the future of crisis mapping by bridging the gap that exists between academics and practitioners working on crisis mapping.

In our opinion, developing the new field of Crisis Mapping Analytics (CMA) will require the close and collegial collaboration between academic institutes like PRIO and operational projects like Ushahidi.

Jen and I are therefore starting formal conversations with donors in order to make this conference happen. Stay tuned for updates in March. In the meantime, if you’d like to provide logistical support or help co-sponsor this unique conference, please email us.

Patrick Philippe Meier