Libya and The Crisis Map

Posted: September 20, 2011 in Uncategorized
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Mapping is a way of referring to Geographic Information Systems (GIS) which, put simply, take geo-referenced data and place it on a map for the purpose of a clear visualisation of the metadata and for the purpose of geo-locating actionable information. So for example if I want to know where to target my funding for an anti-drugs campaign I could map the data for instances of drug and alcohol related crime in order to see which areas of any given location, say L.A., might be most vulnerable and stand to gain the most from this funding. Any information which can be geographically referenced can be mapped and many different types of information are being mapped; You can check out Floatingsheep for a look at a wide range of maps or Ogle Earth for a critical analysis of mapping applications in science and society.

When mapping data intended to benefit people living in fragile or failed states it is important to consider which map on which to place our datasets. Lets take OpenStreetMap (OSM) vs GoogleMaps: The differences between the two are extensive, but I want to highlight one point and that is that Google Maps are corporate; Google is a for-profit company, and for the purpose of this discussion that equals being subject to export restrictions and country-specific discrimination. OSM on the other hand is an open source map, which means that anyone who knows how to use it and has access to an internet connection can add information to these maps. So in places where the Google folks can’t go – like the DRC or the Gaza Strip – detailed information, such as landmarks, hospitals, schools and other points of interest (including minor roads and alleyways), just isn’t available for these locations. See OSM Gaza Strip vs Google Maps Gaza Strip.

That said, neither OSM nor Google Maps have detailed information for the DRC, but we can assume that in the case of the OSM this is because in the Congo very very few people have access to the internet, less than 0.5% vs 81% in the Gaza Strip (CIA World Factbook, 2011). Another important point to mention is that for all countries where US trade sanctions apply Google Earth is a good as gone.  During the Darfur crisis in 2007, aid workers in Sudan were unable to access Google Earth due to export restrictions on Google licenses in Sudan placed on Google by the US government, as a US company.

The importance of GIS, or mapping, in situations of crisis and conflict has recently become more widely acknowledged; The mapping platform Ushahidi, an African-born technology, was used most notably in Kenya during the post-election crisis in late 2007, in Haiti following the devastating earthquake of 2010 and this year in Libya during the crisis that erupted following the February 17th protests. Ushahidi takes information via email, online, through text and voice-mail messaging and twitter geo-references it, tabulates it and turns it into visualizable and manageable data on one of the widely used maps of your choice (Google, Yahoo, Bing or OSM Maps). The technology supports other platforms such as FrontlineSMS and SwiftRiver in order to enable more accurate and timely reporting.

Ushahidi works through crowdsourcing: crowdsourcing in terms of the crisis related information going into the map and crowdsourcing in terms of the online volunteers from all over the world who manage and filter that information, otherwise known as the Standby Task Force (SBTF). The SBTF work as a kind of volunteer global emergency service and they are trained before hand (and sometimes on the job) how to use Ushahidi platform and how to filter and verify reports. Anyone in the world with an internet connection (presumably broadband), a mobile phone and some time to offer can join the SBTFMapAction, who have also been commended for their mapping efforts in recent major conflict and disaster related crises, work on the same premise as the SBTF and have produced a range of maps covering various datasets surrounding the Libya crisis.

After the success of the deployment of Ushahidi during the Haiti earthquake crisis when it provided invaluable crisis related information for the humanitarian relief effort managed by the UN, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) decided to directly collaborate on the formation of a crisis-information map for the Libya Crisis.  The Standby Task Force (SBTF), lead by Patrick Meier worked with the OCHA coordinators in Libya to compile a map of essential information for the humanitarian efforts there.

In OCHA’s follow-up report on the collaboration with the SBTF, they highlighted the need for products like the Libya Crisis Map to go beyond online “event” reporting, which I’m going to take to mean the mere reporting of event related news readily available online. One of the major problems with mapping in conflict vs mapping in natural disaster is the inherent need for sensitivity and confidentiality surrounding some types of information being managed; Ordinary civilians living in conflict situations risk torture and death when participating in a project like this. Patrick Meier discusses this in his post-mapping analysis of the collaboration with OCHA;  The SBTF did manage to get local collaborators on board to feed information directly from Libya about the goings-on, but hesitantly;  They were happy to collaborate as long as the map remained within the private domain to be viewed and used only by those directly involved in the humanitarian efforts. When the Libya Crisis Map went public three days after the private map was deployed this collaboration stopped.  The implications of the publication of the map for the global audience on these Libya-based contributors is unknown.

Also a second major problem was present, that of a total censorship of the most important telecommunication networks available at the time, i.e. the internet and mobile phone services. In Haiti, the Ushahidi team organised with the US State Department for a text number (4636) to be made available for Haitians to report localised crisis information from their mobile phones – this greatly enhanced the success of the humanitarian efforts.  In Libya, no text number was made available and would have been fruitless as all mobile services which were state-owned and operated were shut-down along with the internet by the Gaddafi regime.

This leads to the question: who did the Libya Crisis Map serve? Indirectly, it served the Libyan civilians at risk, in particular those who were displaced, but only through it’s ability to support the coordination and organisation of information already readily available for OCHA in its role in coordinating humanitarian efforts. OCHA praised the efforts of the volunteers in that they managed to establish in under 48 hours what it would have taken them (OCHA) more than a week to do without them, but unlike the Haiti Crisis Map it could not extend that support to many vulnerable people directly involved in the crisis.

It might be worth mentioning that even if mobile connectivity was present, a text number was available and there was no fear of reprisals no infrastructure was available to reach out to those deep within the conflict affected areas – OCHA couldn’t help people in Tripoli anyway.  The map’s function as support for only the humanitarian coordination efforts is also reflected in the fact that mapping was handed over to an OCHA team after 4 weeks and carried on only until 4th June, even though fighting continues to ravage Libya.   It is evident that mapping in conflict related crises, therefore, poses greater challenges than mapping for disaster related crises.  The technology was not able to transcend the severe censorship placed on the Libyan people by a Gaddafi desperate to hold on to his control.

Whilst mapping in conflict affected areas has it’s limitations, it has not been extensively researched as to how maps might be used to predict where conflict might arise. Global MapAid works to map instances of poverty across the world in order to help target poverty relief efforts. The relationship between, poverty, food insecurity and conflict has been well documented and mapping poverty to target poverty relief efforts could help in mitigating conflict related crises.

Maps relating to the Libya Crisis include:

Libya Crisis Map – SBTF

MapAction have a 6 page catalogue of Libya crisis related maps

Tripoli Prisons Map

The battle for Tripoli and the Search for Gaddafi Map

For further information:

Libya Crisis Map Report, Standby Task Force, 2011

OCHA Lessons Learned – Collaboration with VTCs in Libya and Japan, 2011

Standby Task Force Blog

Ushahidi Blog

Global MapAid


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