Crowd-generated Crisis Maps Revolutionize Humanitarian Response

Crowd-generated Crisis Maps Revolutionize Humanitarian Response

By JUHAN Tags: , ,

By: Jen Ziemke, Ph.D.
Co-Founder, International Network of Crisis Mappers,
Assistant Professor, John Carroll University
Fellow, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative

Libya Crisis Map (
Libya Crisis Map (

Something is happening right now. You hear a protest forming on the street around the corner; earlier, you were intimidated while trying to enter a polling station; last night I was tortured; you were harassed on the way home from work because of your gender; something outside your office just exploded. Perhaps you just logged on to see someone tweet or received a text: help, a tornado just destroyed my home; my property is now covered in oil; I need a tent; I am trapped under rubble; EARTHQUAKE.

Over the past year, the world has learned they can share their story about what is happening to them in real-time through SMS, twitter, and other social media. The proliferation of the cellphone and the internet coupled with new social practices emerging around the use of these tools facilitated this shift.  The crowd is engaged in the process of learning from one another and itself. During a disaster the crowd has learned to scour twitter for news: it is the place the world goes to tell its story. The crowd has also learned that it can stand up its own Crisis Map, even as the situation is still evolving. (

To create these maps, volunteers help translate and comb through the stories and create reports. (Learn more at Volunteers from the diaspora are busy translating messages and helping fill in street names on local road maps. Together with someone who has never set foot in their neighborhood, networked communities around the world swarm around the crisis map to help trace roads and tag buildings. One edit at a time, one report at a time, they create fantastic maps for effective disaster response.  (see:,

Blast from the past: Participants at ICCM 2009
Blast from the past: Participants at ICCM 2009

We now have a torrent of real-time location-based information about what is happening around the world at our fingertips.  Crisis Mappers are busy developing new tools for the acquisition, visualization, and analysis of these new large datasets. Such analysis then helps inform operational and humanitarian response. For example, the UN-OCHA used real-time, live Crisis Maps to help identify and close gaps in their response to the evolving humanitarian crisis in Libya.

Crowd-generated Crisis Maps document snowstorms and fires, oil spills and tornados, conflicts, battles, genocides, famines, and earthquakes. We use maps to monitor repressive regimes, shed light on the human rights abuse and highlight intimidation, poverty or discrimination. Volunteers around the world can also be mobilized to comb thousands of satellite images, detecting evidence of forced evictions, troop movements , and mass graves (e.g. see .

The cat is already out of the bag. The map is going to be made. No one has control over this global crowd. Attempts can be made to tame, to pull, and to shape this trajectory, but Crisis Maps can and will be created by people all over the world, for free, and customized for the current crisis at hand.

The International Network of Crisis Mappers (link: is an active, interdisciplinary community of practice whose conversations continue to create and shape how we collectively understand this new discipline. Our community is a neutral place to have discussions across fields, agencies, domains, and cultures. We are a network that grew from our modest beginnings as a group of 100 at the first International Conference on Crisis Mapping in 2009 to nearly 3,000 individuals who have collective work experience in every country on earth and who currently reside in 129 countries.

The network grew because there was a space to fill: the lack of cross-cutting fora around which to have these needed discussions, and the siloed nature of disaster response helped facilitate its growth. As such, we are a place where members of over 1,500 very different institutions and organizations are able to talk openly about the technical, ethical, privacy and security implications of our work via simple mechanisms: email, skype, and over beer at the annual conference, the ICCM.

Our community is open to anyone. The norm we are trying to foster is: “share until it hurts” with “as much openness as you can stand.” That means we hope people find ways to share code, imagery, documents, syllabi, ideas, articles, or algorithms. The incentive for sharing is this: it is the only realistic chance you have to get your voice and ideas heard in this new space. If you don’t, the wave will simply pass over you. Openness is the new competitive.

For more information, check out these new and evolving resources on Crisis Mapping: Course resources, syllabi, overview material, videos & webinars.


About jenziemke

• Associate Professor, International Relations, John Carroll University • Board of Directors, Open Geospatial Consortium • Co-Founder & Co-Director of The International Network of Crisis Mappers and the International Conference Series on Crisis Mapping (ICCM). • Principal Consultant, Endogeneity LLC
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