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Science and Technology

Exploradio: Crisis mapping
A John Carroll University professor takes humanitarian aid into the digital age by organizing a network of volunteer crisis mappers
This story is part of a special series.

Reporter / Host
Jeff St. Clair
Jen Ziemke Ph.D. teaches political science at John Carroll University and is co-founder of the crisis mappers network. Volunteers from around the world gather data and messages from crisis zones and map the patterns of conflict and ordinary life.
Courtesy of Jeff St.Clair
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In The Region:

When disasters strike, accurate information is one of the first casualties.  But thanks to the efforts of a John Carroll University professor, a worldwide network of volunteers is now able to take messages pouring out of crisis hotspots and help coordinate relief, response, and understanding of unfolding tragedies.

In this week’s Exploradio, WKSU’s Jeff St.Clair explores the emerging science of crisis mapping.

Exploradio: Crisis mappers

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Bearing witness to war

Jen Ziemke loved her Peace Corps posting in Namibia, but she knew about a mile away across the border, "there was a really devastating civil war.” 

War raged in the neighboring country of Angola for 40 years, but Ziemke felt something was missing in media coverage of the conflict’s effect on citizens.  Ziemke came home, and for her graduate studies in Wisconsin, tracked the statistics of the civil war.  She discovered that data may be the best weapon the international community can use to prevent humanitarian tragedies.

“I started to think about how we can leverage real-time information and get that on maps and have that help inform disaster response, help us understand how conflicts move in time and space, help bear witness to violations around an election…for a lot of different things.”

She formed the first ever international network of crisis mappers in 2009 at a conference at John Carroll University, where she teaches political science.

Putting the network to work

Ziemke demonstrates the power of the crisis mappers’ network in the hours following the 2010 Haitian earthquake.

A map of the devastated capital of Port-au-Prince comes to life.  In the video what look like flashes of lightning show thousands of edits as voluteers fill in the gaps in the sub-standard map of the city.  Ziemke says, each of the lightning strikes is an edit of someone "tracing a road that hadn’t existed before.”

Haitians from around the world helped name the roads, even "footpaths have the colloquial local name written in them.”

The United Nations team responding to the Haitian disaster turned to Ziemke and her network to pinpoint locations of field hospitals. 

Andrej Verity is a U.N. humanitarian coordinator based in Geneva, Switzerland.

Verity says within 24 hours of the earthquake, "we had somewhere between 70 to 80 percent of those[field hospitals] with the –X/Y coordinates, the longitude and latitude, and where able to then put that information on a map.”

Verity says the emergence of an online humanitarian network is changing the way the U.N. approaches disaster relief.

“It’s really shifting the mentality and helping traditional organizations realize that these sort of things can be done in a remote sense as long as we have the right people in the emergency explaining what needs to be done.”

Crowdsourcing for the world

The U.N. is now calling on informal networks like the crisis mappers to process their information through crowdsourcing.  John Carroll’s Jen Ziemke says people with a wide set of skills want to help when disaster strikes, “and we can activate those parts of the digital humanitarian network that make sense to support relief and response in Libya, or Syria, or whatever the concern is at the moment.”

Ziemke is introducing the crowdsourcing model to the U.S. State Department and military, along with foreign aid agencies at the 2012 crisis mappers conference next month at the World Bank headquarters in Washington.  She says the crisis mappers network has 4,000 individuals from almost every country in the world and over 2,000 different organizations. 

Groups like Syria Tracker, Somalia Speaks, even a group tracking flu trends in the U.S. are part of the crisis mappers network. 

For Ziemke, capturing the flow of text messages pouring out of crisis zones not only helps focus aid to troubled regions, it gives people living in the heart of conflict the comfort that at least part of the world is listening. 

Related Links & Resources
Crowdmaps from Ushahidi - crisis mapping software

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