Academics Join Relief Efforts Around the World as Crisis Mappers

Volunteer cartographers, at the request of the United Nations, are trying to map areas of need in Libya.
March 27, 2011

Jen Ziemke can't feed the needy in Libya. But, like many academics, the political scientist in Cleveland can pitch in on relief efforts with a different skill: map making. And as agencies look to exploit new-media tools during crises, they're turning to volunteers like her for help.

From her office at John Carroll University, Ms. Ziemke joins hundreds of citizen cartographers who scour blogs, social-media sites, and news outlets for information about Libya. They then label that data—security threats, health needs, refugee movements—and plug it into a United Nations-requested Web site called Libya Crisis Map.

"We're taking a big leap," says Andrej Verity of the U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. "We're diving into collaboration with the volunteer community in a first effort to try to make the response better."

Many academics are eager to lend a hand—or crunch a data set—for the cause. Their efforts are helping to turn the crises in the Middle East and Japan into an experiment in Disaster Relief 2.0. The result: a range of Web-mapping projects that are changing how crisis information is shared.

For map creators, the hope is that those tools will help relief workers on the ground. But academics building the platforms also have other audiences in mind: scholars who will study the crises, students eager for practical experience, and average citizens interested in getting breaking news stories in new ways.

At the University of California at Los Angeles, for example, technologists have created Web sites to help the public eavesdrop on the raw voices of people living through the political strife in Egypt and Libya, and the continuing struggles in Japan to recover after a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami. Their platform, called HyperCities, maps Twitter messages about events in those countries. It also archives the tweets for future study. That means a scholar examining the Egyptian revolution could turn back the clock to key moments, such as when protesters removed their shoes in disgust at a speech in which Hosni Mubarak failed to resign the presidency.

Trying to Help From Afar

Yoh Kawano, a campus coordinator of geographic information systems, or GIS, at UCLA, wanted to go further than just displaying tweets. When the earthquake hit his native Japan, he did a Google search for "GIS volunteer." That took him to a nonprofit group called GISCorps. Mr. Kawano soon found himself collaborating with a team of experts from Australia, Canada, and Greece. They hunted down geographic information relevant to the earthquake relief efforts, like a list of working public telephones, and published it in an online map accessible through UCLA's Web site.

Harvard University, too, sprang into action, erecting a Web portal that has become a one-stop shop of geographic information pertinent to the Japanese crisis. For example, one set of maps displays before and after images of areas affected by the disaster. Such comparisons can help responders locate collapsed buildings, blocked roads, and seawater-flooded areas, says Wendy Guan, director of GIS research services at Harvard's Center for Geographic Analysis. 

 In other cases, though, there can be a disconnect between excitement over the mapping projects and evidence of their direct benefit. Mr. Kawano says the audience for his team's efforts was unclear—at least beyond the broad notion that it was for "the international community."

"Japan is one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world," says Mr. Kawano. "So when I was initially put on board, I was actually really wondering what this was for, because I'm collecting data from Japanese Web sites that the Japanese people don't really need."

Much interest in large-scale, crowd-sourced crisis mapping grew out of the devastating earthquake in Haiti last year. Volunteers used handheld GPS devices to build up-to-date maps to assist relief workers in navigating the country. Humanitarian workers turned to crowdsourcing for information. They used online maps that collected text messages from people reporting trapped victims and medical emergencies.

One mapping platform that gained particular attention was Ushahidi, which had earlier been used to report post-election violence in Kenya. Ushahidi volunteers set up a war room at Tufts University. They enlisted help from expatriate Haitians who could go online from anywhere to translate incoming messages, says Ms. Ziemke, co-founder of the International Network of Crisis Mappers, a coalition of some 1,500 technologists, policy makers, journalists, researchers, scholars, and hackers.

"I was trying to read as fast as I could between classes to literally pick which one of these messages is so urgent that I ought to Skype the Coast Guard their coordinates and tell them to literally send the choppers out to go after these people," Ms. Ziemke, an assistant professor of international relations, says. She worried about taking breaks to teach, because she might be "letting someone die."

For all the innovation involved in the Haiti efforts, one report on the crisis warned against calling them a "new-media success story." Coordination was sometimes lacking, as was understanding of how to use the new tools, says the report, "Media, Information Systems and Communities: Lessons From Haiti." Radio remained "the most effective tool for serving the information needs of the local population," says the report, which was supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

After the response to Haiti, authorities were interested in the volunteers' work. But they wanted to know whether those citizen mappers would be around for the next crisis. So some of Ms. Ziemke's associates created a "Standby Task Force" of trained volunteers in coordination with the people who worked most on Haiti.

A Call From the U.N.

Libya was a milestone for that panel because the United Nations, for the first time, asked it to mobilize. The conflict presented a new set of security concerns, Ms. Ziemke says. What if somebody inside Libya tweets that "rebel forces are on the move," and that gets posted on the Web with their name? The person could get killed.

So the mappers created a private, password-protected version of the site. For the public version, they established a 24-hour delay before information gets posted, and much of that material is redacted. The data could be useful to humanitarian relief agencies trying to figure out logistics, Ms. Ziemke says. For example, the map could alert them to roadblocks to maneuver around.

For the moment, though, humanitarian workers have a bigger problem. Most can't enter Libya because of the security situation, says Brendan McDonald, chief of the information-services section of the U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Still, in a phone interview from Switzerland, he praises the volunteers for improving awareness of what's going on inside the country.

"If you go back a couple of years ago, all of this information still would have been perhaps available, but it would have been seen as noise coming at you in multiple formats," he says. "So Libya Crisis Map has done an extraordinary job to aggregate all of this information."

One university-based Libya mapper, Diana Sinton, hopes to get undergraduates involved in future deployments. They may already be using many of the technologies that bring in the information, notes Ms. Sinton, director of spatial curriculum and research at the University of Redlands. Such work presents "ideal opportunities," she says, "for students who may be questioning why they're spending a zillion dollars studying something that may suddenly seem quite esoteric when compared with life-and-death situations they're seeing on screens."