On Crisis Mapping

Web-based mapping tools have been used to track disease outbreaks, and more recently have been employed in response to natural disasters. Many humanitarian relief efforts have employed crowd-sourcing as a means to gather and share information. By utilizing crowd-sourcing tools including digital maps, government agencies, non-governmental organizations, and other interested parties can collaborate more effectively and improve humanitarian relief responses to natural disasters. For example, crowd-sourced maps can provide disparate networks of volunteers with a simplified way to share information, and can give local relief workers a clearer picture of the situation on the ground as they establish priorities for food, shelter, sanitation services, and healthcare facilities.

The web-reporting platform Ushahidi has been used by human rights and humanitarian aid workers to document and track progress during and immediately following crisis and natural disaster situations. Unlike other similar tools, Ushahidi is open source, and allows for information to be input using cell phones and other web-connected devices. Specialized versions of the Ushahidi crisis-mapping tool are frequently developed following natural disasters, including the recent earthquake in Japan, to allow individuals on the ground to text the locations of individuals in need of assistance or the locations of clinics or hospitals. Recent iterations of Ushahidi have integrated “check-in” functionality as well, further simplifying the process of adding data to the map.

Though crisis-mapping tools were utilized following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the majority of their use was by international aid organizations. In contrast, updates to the Japan Crisis Map have been posted by volunteers, government employees, and others. By encouraging the active participation of more individuals, these types of crisis maps can give a fuller understanding of the situation on the ground. In addition, representatives from academic institutions are participating in efforts to examine the data gathered using crowd-sourced crisis maps and identify ways of improving how information is shared during and immediately following natural disasters. A recent report entitled “Disaster Relief 2.0: The Future of Information Sharing in Humanitarian Emergencies” is guiding these efforts by examining how new technologies can influence emergency relief work. The report documents how technology was used during the earthquake in Haiti and in the weeks and months following to locate survivors, provide information about where to receive assistance, and gather donations for aid organizations.

According to experts, “the crisis-mapping response to the earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010 was striking proof of the potential of new mapping tools,” and by examining the successes and shortcomings, the tools and technologies can be improved faster, and more efficient.”

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