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Crowdsourced crisis mapping: how it works and why it matters

Syria crisis: the violence mapped by the UN. FreedomHouse

Crowdsourced crisis mapping: how it works and why it matters

Syria crisis: the violence mapped by the UN. FreedomHouse

Web 2.0 tools and mobile technologies have lowered the barriers not just for people to access the internet but to create and share content. Through open-source, collaborative programs such as wikis, the creation and distribution of information has effectively been crowdsourced.

But can this democratisation of the production of information and the expansion of networked global communities lead to action in solving real-world problems? As inventor Vinay Gupta of Hexayurt sharply puts it: “Ten years from now there will be 2 billion people with broadband internet access, but no toilet.”

Access to technology is only ever one side of the problem. The other is how people bridge the gap between the creation and sharing of knowledge and action based on that information.

Crowdsourced crisis mapping represents a significant step upon this path.

Australian Bureau of Statistics

Crisis mapping is often equated to a geographic information system (GIS). GIS is a way of visually presenting, analysing and managing data and statistics, primarily through the use of maps. For example, a map could show the population density throughout Australia by using a sliding scale of colours (see image above).

Crisis mapping goes further by embracing a broader set of tasks that provide a geolocated visualisation, allowing for filtering, categorisation and analysis of information. The Women Under Siege crowdmap from Syria, for instance, allows you to filter the information by category of attack, location and the report’s source, while checking for any available related media.

The Ushahidi (“witness” in Kiswahili) interactive mapping platform, with more than 20,000 deployments across 132 countries, ranks among the most popular crisis mapping tools.

Ushahidi was developed in the wake of the disputed Kenyan elections of 2007 as a way of reporting eye-witness accounts of violence across the country. People could text the volunteers of Ushahidi, who would display the reports through Google Maps.

In 2010, the team from Ushahidi released Crowdmap, a crowdsourced version of the platform, which allows people to “check-in” with their location and add relevant reports and information.

Crowdsourced crisis mapping aims to harness the streams of information that flow through social media to provide response organisations and other interested parties with near-real-time, categorised, and geolocated data.

The explosion of user-generated content through social media can be leveraged to assist first-aid responders and humanitarian organisations in the wake of natural disasters, crises and violent conflicts, or even (more tongue-in-cheek) a zombie apocalypse.

Screenshot of the Libya Crisis Map used in different presentations by Standby Task Force members.