International Conference of Crisis Mappers, Four Themes


Intensity map for the 2010 Haiti earthquake

Image via Wikipedia


Post by: Kim Stephens

The International Conference of Crisis Mappers (Oct. 1-3) brought together many different groups of experts, with disciplines ranging from geospatial intelligence to international humanitarian relief, to focus in part on lessons learned from the response to Haiti. At the start of  the conference Patrick Meier, one of the event organizers, asked participants to reflect on how communication, cooperation and coordination can be improved for future responses to large-scale disasters. He reminded the audience, “Haiti is a clear outlier…we should be inspired by the response…but should not use it as our only model for moving forward.”

By examining tweets from the audience made during the morning presentations, I was able to tease out several themes that emerged:

1. Response organizations in Haiti mostly had to rely on low-tech solutions for mapping since the country had little technology infrastructure.

  • Paper maps were the norm for those working the response on the ground.
  • Information gaps existed, according to some, due to a lack of technology and spatial awareness of both the citizens in the affected country and the response community.
  • Information overload on the ground is what stops most collaboration/coordination from happening.
  • No matter how many digital maps are made, ultimately, decisions are made from sitreps and verbal agreements on the ground. Therefore, there are real challenges in incorporating crowdsourced information into established organizations and data flows.

2. Finding information about the affected area was sometimes easier to gather from those not in the impacted zone (e.g. , those in the Diaspora), although getting that information into the hands of responders in the field was a   challenge.

  • Discovering information about a particular place doesn’t always have to come from  survivors. Sometimes a “local” can be physically very far from the disaster location (a large number of ex-patriots wanted to help and had first hand knowledge of the impacted area).
  • Ushahidi’s best accomplishment could very well have been crowdsourcing volunteers.
  • Crowdsourcing also occurred in traditional organizations. The World Bank’s Galen Evans described how over 600 earthquake engineers were essentially crowdsourced to analyze aerial data.
    • Everyone wants to help in a disaster, but we should think about what experts can be utilized during an event before the event.
  • Was the information coming from SMS texts reliable? Christine Corbane from the Joint Research Centre explained how their research found geo-tagged, crowdsourced SMS text messages highly correlated to the spatial distribution of building damage intensity in Port-au-Prince.

3. The crisis mapping community can add value to the response community, but processes to do so need to be established.

  • The crisis mapping community can translate each affected person’s story during a disaster into actionable data so that crisis managers can act. (See great new blog post by Gisli Olafsson on this topic.)
  • But, creating a common language among cartographers, humanitarians and beneficiaries is tricky: we need to develop baseline cartographic literacy.
  • The UN’s OCHA representative described how the emerging technology community and the humanitarian community don’t speak the same language. The one thing we have in common is that we all want to help. Questions remain:
    • Who coordinates the crowds?
    • How does the tech community fit into the UN cluster groups?
    • Can the crowd be used for data processing and data cleaning?
    • Why didn’t these groups coordinate during the event? Everyone was overloaded, pre-event coordination needs to occur.
  • The keys to success will be shared standards, shared situational awareness, and shared goals.
  • Standard operating procedures should be put in place to help govern this information sharing.

4. Affected populations or nations can and should be empowered to help themselves.

  • Ushahidi representative noted how empowering the local community in Haiti was key, and the locals eventually took over information curation.
  • The Grassroots Mapping Network discussed how simple technology can be employed for data anaylsis:  anyone can use their kit to fly a kite or balloon with a camera attached and gather data without the need for a satellite connection.  This inexpensive solution can help communities do their own mapping.
  • A representative from Development Seed discussed how we should think about needs first and technology second because there are many places that have limited technology capabilities. He stated:”This is why we are building really tiny software” and introduced maps on a stick, or maps on USB drives loaded with spatial data for low resource settings. This can help people in the field, even those that don’t have internet connections.

One tweet sort of sums up the day: Does better data come from improved technology or more meaningful engagement of locals?”

For a complete summary of each speaker, see the blog of  Jillian C. York who transcribed the talks as they occurred.

For a more complete after action report on Crisis Information Management during the Haitian earthquake: see: “Haiti and Beyond” by the ICT for Peace Foundation, March 2010.

9 responses to “International Conference of Crisis Mappers, Four Themes

  1. Thanks, I fixed the hyperlink as well. The report is a great resource.

  2. Thanks for a great analysis. Lovely to meet you

    Heather L

  3. Thanks Kim, great post. (Love the quote :))

    My quick thoughts on this:

    From my twitter-view of ICCM, and from your four themes, it strikes me that there needs to be some form of rapid assessment tool created that can assist both in planning and when a crisis team hits the ground. This tool could assess whether the team thinks, based on a range of variables, technology can work or not (tech), and whether the local community can be engage or not (i call this “touch”).

    So, to better visualize this, I have created “tech/touch matrix” with two variables – high and low community engagement and high and low technological ability — it is easier to see this visually so go here: This then creates four scenarios (represented in the 4 quadrants of the matrix): low tech/low touch, low tech/high touch, low touch/high tech and high tech/high touch.

    Basically, the best place to be is high tech and high touch (local engagement) – on the matrix that is the upper left corner. The worst place to be is the bottom right corner – low tech/low touch. The other two (upper right and lower left) are the more in-between scenarios, each with its own issues and its different challenges and strengths.

    So, you could use this as a planning tool, by creating separate “toolkits” (or you could call them methodologies) for each scenario. Each kit would need to have different components to it, and would have different focuses. For example, of there is great community engagement but a poor technological outlook, then you would have a kit that deal with that, and so on.

    Again, sorry i can’t show the matrix here, it would be easier to explain.

    Hope that is somewhat helpful.


  4. Pingback: Tech/Touch Matrix |

  5. “we should think about needs first and technology second ”

    I think this will also lead to better technology. There was a natural dynamic flow to the exercises and real world events recently that saw quite a number of technologies thrown at problems as they arose.

    What resulted was a scattered collection of ‘stuff’ that is still getting refined and gathered into useable collections.

    Concentrating on the actual functions required will define and thereby provide a spec to create (or hybridize) the instruments capable of effective communications flow and knowledge storage.

    Having the bigger picture of tweet responses is a very useful tool for this community, but a lot of stuff doesn’t get twittered, in general. The points gathered are incredibly salient though.

    Nice work!

  6. Pingback: ICT for peace foundation » Four themes emerging from ICCM 2010

  7. Ashutosh Madhukar

    good resource!

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