Tag Archives: Zimbabwe

WikiMapAid, Ushahidi and Swift River

Keeping up to date with science journals always pays off. The NewScientist just published a really interesting piece related to crisis mapping of diseases this morning. I had to hop on a flight back to Boston so am uploading my post now.

The cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe is becoming increasingly serious but needed data on the number cases and fatalities to control the problem is difficult to obtain. The World Health Organization (WHO) in Zimbabwe has stated that “any system that improves data collecting and sharing would be beneficial.”

This is where WikiMapAid comes in. Developed by Global Map Aid, the wiki enables humanitarian workers to map information on a version of Google Maps that can be viewed by anyone. “The hope is that by circumventing official information channels, a clearer picture of what is happening on the ground can develop.” The website is based on a “Brazilian project called Wikicrimes, launched last year, in which members of the public share information about crime in their local area.”


WikiMapAid allows users to create markers and attach links to photographs or to post a report of the current situation in the area. Given the context of Zimbabwe, “if people feel they will attract attention from the authorities by posting information, they could perhaps get friends on the outside to post information for them.”

As always with peer-produced data, the validity of the information will depend on those supplying it. While moderators will “edit and keep track of postings […], unreliable reporting could be a problem. In order to address this, the team behind the project is “developing an algorithm that will rate the reputation of users according to whether the information they post is corroborated, or contradicted.”

This is very much in line with the approach we’re taking at Ushahidi for the Swift River project. As WikiMapAid notes, “even if we’re just 80 per cent perfect, we will still have made a huge step forward in terms of being able to galvanize public opinion, raise funds, prioritize need and speed the aid on those who need it most.”

Time to get in touch with the good folks at WikiMapAid.

Patrick Philippe Meier

HURIDOCS09: Geospatial Technologies for Human Rights

Lars Bromley from AAAS and I just participated in a panel on “Communicating Human Rights Information Through Technology” at the HURIDOCS conference in Geneva. I’ve been following Lars’ project on the use of Geospatial Technologies for Human Rights with great interest over the past two years and have posted several blogs on the topic here, here and here. I’ll be showcasing Lars’ work in the digital democracy course next week since the topic I’ll be leading the discussion on “Human Rights 2.0.”


Lars uses satellite imagery to prove or monitor human rights violations. This includes looking for the follwoing:

  • Housing and infrastructure demolition and destruction;
  • New housing and infrastructure such as resulting from force relocation;
  • Natural resource extraction and defoliation;
  • Mass grave mapping.

There are five operational, high-resolution satellites in orbit. These typically have resolutions that range from 50 centimeters to one meter. Their positions can be tracked online via JSatTrak:


There are three types of projects that can draw on satellite imagery in human rights contexts:

  1. Concise analysis of a single location;
  2. Large area surveys over long periods of time;
  3. Active monitoring using frequently acquired imagery.


Lars shared satellite imagery from two human rights projects. The first is of a farm in Zimbabwe which was destroyed as part of a voter-intimidation campaign. The picture below was taken in 2002 and cost $250 to purchase. A total of 870 structure were manually counted.


Copyright 2009 DigitalGlobe. Produced by AAAS.

The satellite image below was taken in 2006 and cost $1,792:


Copyright 2009 DigitalGlobe. Produced by AAAS.


The second project sought to identify burned villages in Burma. Some 70 locations of interest within Burma were compiled using information from local NGOs. The image below is of a village in Papun District taken in December 2006.


Copyright 2009 DigitalGlobe. Produced by AAAS.

The satellite image below as taken in June 2007 after the Free Burma Rangers reported an incident of village burning in April.


Copyright 2009 DigitalGlobe. Produced by AAAS.


Lars is very upfront about the challenges of using satellite imagery to document and monitor human rights abuses. These include:

  • More recent satellite imagery is particularly expensive;
  • Images can take between 2 weeks to 6 months to order;
  • Competition between multiple clients for satellite images;
  • Satellite images tend to be range between 200 megabytes and 2 gigabytes;
  • Requires technical capacity;
  • Cloud interference is a pervasive issue;
  • Images are only snapshots in time;
  • Real time human rights violations have never been captured by satellite;
  • Satellites are owned by governments and companies which present ethical concerns.

Nevertheless, Lars is confident that real-time and rapid use of satellite imagery will be possible in the future.


Here are the key points from Lars’ presentation:

  • The field of geospatial technologies for human rights is still evolving;
  • Satellite imagery is most useful in proving destruction in remote areas;
  • Evidence from satellite imagery becomes more powerful when combined with field-data.

Patrick Philippe Meier