Friday, 7 June 2013

Crisis Mapping- The revolution in disaster management? - By Melanie Eckle

A new interdisciplinary field appeared in the last century that is talked about in an incredible variety of places- from universities and peer groups to international organizations and companies- it is ubiquitous: crisis mapping. A new method created by volunteers and technical communities to improve the way of crisis response. This interest has different backgrounds. First to mention is the huge impact this new practice had, regarding some of the last disasters and emergencies. Like the famous Haiti earthquake, where it eased a lot of the response work and recovery. That way, people got curious about the crisis mapping techniques.

Over the past years people all around the world got familiar with the new technologies that are important to participate in this practice, the use of SMS and social platforms became a daily routine. Additionally people became aware of the fact that they can actually take part in crisis mapping using simply these daily practices (ZIEMKE 2012). According to UN OCHA the current number of mobile-connected devices even exceeds the number of the world`s population. Increasing numbers on cell-phone subscriptions are particularly noticeable in developing countries, mostly in countries that receive humanitarian aid (UN OCHA 2013). Simultaneously the nature of maps got modified, as people got more familiar with navigation systems and GPS units, more and more dynamic maps were created.

All these changes led to the emergence of crowd-sourced crisis maps. Thus mapping gets democratized, user-generated and participatory. Instead of being controlled by few decision makers, anyone can contribute and shape these maps (MEIER 2012). People can take part in different ways, depending on their particular prospects, as for making a crisis mapping process work crowdsourcing, mapping, the evaluation, interpretation and analysis of data as well as the analysis of satellite imagery and many more processes are important (ZIEMKE 2012).

Can crisis mapping be deployed for every kind of disaster? To date it was used in a series of different emergencies. In Syria victims of violence and misbehavior of the regime used the Syria Tracker to let the world know about the atrocity and injustice they suffered. In the north of the US people could help one another going through a huge snow storm given that they could connect through crisis mapping….and there are many more examples that show the growing frame in which crisis mapping is enabled (ZIEMKE 2012).

However with the growing number of participants, with different systems and workflows alongside the increasing amounts of data and data sources, new problems emerge. To make the new technologies and actors work in their full potential, many steps have to be taken. The Humanitarian Aid Agencies have to open up to innovations and be willing to change their way of emergency response. Therefor they have to learn and adapt to the new possibilities the volunteer communities and technical communities offer and acknowledge their potential, given that these new groups can help to detect the needs and priorities of the affected community. In that vain they help making the crisis response more accurate, adequate and focused. Yet for the crisis mapping to work in an ideal way the Humanitarian Aid Organizations have to accept as well that power has to be committed to the people and that it is inevitable for functioning workflows to make data open and freely available for everyone, like it was already demanded in the Human Rights Declaration. Certainly standards need to be developed that ensure that ethical, privacy and security issues are preserved. The Humanitarian Aid Organizations can contribute having emergency experience and formal knowledge (UN OCHA 2013).

In publications like the Disaster Relief 2.0 report and the Humanitarianism in the Network Age report UN OCHA and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative demonstrate that there is still a lot to do till a system that works for all participants and for all emergencies is developed and deployable. Recommendations and outlooks are given that are all but yet to be tested (UN OCHA 2013, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative 2011).

The community of volunteers and the awareness of the new possibilities are growing daily, likewise does the number of private organizations and governmental institutions that want to participate. Thus the pressure on the Humanitarian Aid Organizations to adapt to the changes of the new network age expands (MEIER 2013).

Regarding the last century and the noticeable changes and improvements that the new technologies and social practices caused it will be exciting to see how and if the different participants in humanitarian action find a way to work together and figure out an information management system that will work according to the standards that have to be met and ameliorate the way of disaster management. I`ll definitely keep my fingers crossed…


Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (2011): Disaster Relief 2.0. The Future of Information Sharing in Humanitarian Emergencies. Washington, DC & Berkshire, UK: UN Foundation & Vodafone Foundation Technology Partnership.

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (2013): Humanitarianism in the Network Age. Geneva: OCHA.

Meier, P. (2013): Crisis Mapping in Action: How Open Source Software and Global Volunteer Networks are Changing the World, One Map at a Time. Journal of Map & Geography Libraries: Advances in Geospatial Information, Collections & Archives, 8:2, 89- 100.

Ziemke, j. (2012): Crisis Mapping. The Construction of a New Interdisciplinary Field. International Network of Crisis Mappers, John Carroll University & the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, University Heights, OH, USA.


  1. I think a big issue will be how to organize the increasing participants of crisis mapping. It will be interesting how V&TC or VGI-communities will develop. Will they more and more diffuse and keep doing their "own things" or gathering and fusing to a few huge communities. Or developing a cluster-architecture like UN/OCHA did together with other humanitarian organizations.

  2. Especially for cases like the one described in Syria, I think privacy issues are very important. How far can contributers be tracked? In a tense political situation it can be very risky to provide information that is against the authority..