Guro Åsveen is a master student at the University of Stavanger, department of Societal Safety Science. In the spring of 2014 she will be writing her thesis on humanitarian technology and emergency management in Kenya.
On November 8 this year, one of the most powerful storms ever recorded, typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) struck the Philippines in a mass of rain, wind and destruction. Reflecting on this on-going crisis and on the role of technology in humanitarian response situations, crisis mappers from across the world recently gathered in Nairobi for the annual International Conference of Crisis Mapping (ICCM).
The ICCM 2013 was the fifth conference since the start-up in 2009. Patrick Meier, co-funder of the Crisis Mappers network, held the opening speech. Commenting on the value of partnerships, Meier cited an old African saying, “It takes a village”, implying that when people work together they can make anything happen. He asked: How can the crisis mapping community best contribute to help save lives in a crisis situation?
Towards a more digitalized response
In the Philippines and elsewhere, the affected communities are undoubtedly the most important part of the response village. When disaster strikes, members of the local communities immediately start to organize help for their friends and neighbours, using the resources already in place. In the crisis literature, this acute phase is known as “the golden hour” which is when the chances of saving lives are the greatest. The long-standing myths that portray victims of disasters as dysfunctional and helpless are thus proven to be incorrect. In fact, one study found that nine out of ten lives saved in a crisis are due to local and non-professional helpers.
Nonetheless, even if there is no replacement for the crucial peer-to-peer assistance during crisis, the offering of help should and do not stop at the local or even national level. As for the crisis mappers, they have a dual approach: While at the one hand seeking to engage with other NGOs and traditional humanitarians, they are also speaking directly to locals on the ground. With the use of technology and crisis mapping, the volunteer and technical communities (V&TCs) are offering tools for crisis-affected populations through which the populations can communicate their needs. In practice this means monitoring social media and reading SMS and e-mails from victims during crisis.
Serving as an example of a formal partnership between a mapping community and the traditional humanitarian sector, the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN) was requested to make a map for UN-OCHA as part of the preparations for the Yolanda response operation. For OCHA, who holds the difficult task of coordinating international efforts, digital mapping has meant getting access to real-time data and needs assessments without themselves having to be physically present in the affected communities. Although it might be debatable whether or not this off-site positioning is in fact profitable when dealing with information and disaster management, many nevertheless highlight the potential for new technology to bring about alternative solutions to logistical challenges, thereby enabling a more rapid disaster response.
Technology in and out of Africa
When looking at the history of crisis mapping on the African continent, one of the most influential platforms for sharing digital information had its starting point in the aftermath of the 2007 Kenyan presidential election and is named “Ushahidi”, meaning “testimony”. The name reflects the role of the citizens and the volunteers who gave their testimony of post-electoral violence through sending SMS and posting on-line what they saw and experienced during that time. It further developed into an innovative and influential digital community where people can turn either for receiving or for sharing information. Another platform, “Uchaguzi”, was launched in the preparation for a new election in the spring of 2013, and through excessive mapping of the situation in different parts of Kenya, history was successfully prevented from repeating itself.
Another Kenyan mapping project worth mentioning is the MapKibera. Kibera is the largest slum in Eastern Africa, located in Nairobi. With a population of approximately one million inhabitants, the Kibera slum is a prominent part of the city. Mapping is utilized in search for hotspots of crime and also as a strategy to empower and build resilience among those most vulnerable. MapKibera is in many ways a great example of how making maps can help bring change to a community. Before this project, Kibera was undetectable on any maps and therefore invisible to anyone outside the slum.
10 per cent technology, 90 per cent human
One thing we tend to forget when talking about mapping and humanitarian technology is that although these may serve as effective tools, all is useless without someone to gather the information, verify it and visualize it for the public or the intended user. The Crisis Mappers network has over 6,000 members from 169 different countries and the Standby Task Force (SBTF) has approximately a thousand members from 70 different countries. With a variety of nationalities and professional backgrounds, these members are to be counted as a human resource. Crisis mapping, as it was stated several times throughout the conference, is only ten per cent about the technology; the rest is dependent on human effort and judgement.
Concerning human partaking in technology, one of the main challenges discussed at the ICCM was how to deal with Big Data. Some challenged the terminology, arguing that there are too many myths and unnecessary concerns related to the concept, “Big Data”. They argued: For most people working with information technology on a daily basis, data is still data; every bits and pieces of information speaks to their original sources which will not change just because more data is shared in a larger format. In conclusion, if the format is too large for us to handle, then the problem is not data but format.
Others find the biggest challenge to be the gathering of data and how we choose between relevant and irrelevant information. If we do not qualify what type of questions are absolutely necessary to ask in a crisis situation and if we cannot agree on any standards, we may face an escalating problem with information overload and owner-ship issues related to extra sensitive and/or unverified information in the future.
Many questions stand unanswered: Is there a need to professionalize the crisis mapping community? Should it be acting as a fully independent actor, or instead work to fulfil the needs of the traditional humanitarian sector? Should the main focus be on entering into formal relationships with already established partners, or more directly on supporting disaster-prone communities and peer-to-peer engagement? Is it possible to make the technology available to a broader audience and thereby decrease the digital divide? Will we be able to use the technology in prevention and disaster risk reduction? How can crisis map technologists balance the support for open data and at the same time respect information that is private or confidential? Should unverified data be published and on whose command? Can contributors of information give or withhold consent on their own behalf or are they simply left with having to trust others to do the picking for them?
These are all high-priority questions in the “new age” of humanitarianism. Considering that crisis mapping is still an emerging field, it may take a while for it to find its role and place in the world of humanitarian affairs. The value of partnerships may be key when coming to terms with both the professionalized and traditional response organizations, as well as with the slum-inhabitants of Nairobi. In either case, technology, people and collaboration remain equally central to humanitarian efforts.
 Omeneya, R. (2013): Uchaguzi Monitoring and Evaluation Report. Nairobi: iHub Research