19. November 2014

Saving the World – One Map at a Time

In New York City it can be hard to keep track of everything that’s going on. I was, then, particularly glad when I noticed one event which I hadn’t heard of before: the International Conference of Crisis Mappers (ICCM), which took place at the New School York in early November.

I wasn’t really aware of the field of crisis mapping before attending the ICCM. Crisis Mapping deals with the use of maps in humanitarian work. While the crisis mapping community first met for its annual conference in 2009, it was in during the January 2010 Haiti earthquake that the potential for mapping as a tool in humanitarian crises became apparent to aid workers. Immediately after the earthquake, members of OpenStreetMap (OSM), a community creating and distributing a pool of open license maps, began tracing data about the earthquake and conditions on the ground. The information gathered was helpful to those involved in the relief efforts.

The conference’s claim to be a “leading humanitarian technology event” immediately caught my attention. I am very interested in how technology, and social media in particular, can be used in the context of development policy. Personally, I am focusing on anti-corruption and how technology can empower civil society actors fighting corruption around the world. During my Mercator year, I want to promote different ways in which citizens can use technology to fight corruption. One application that I will be working with is Bribespot, which encourages people to report situations in which they had to pay a bribe to a public official. Bribespot records anonymous reports and adds them to a map, in order to raise public awareness about the scale of corruption in a certain locales.

En route to the conference, I still wasn’t clear how my interests would mesh with the themes presented. I was glad though to meet many other specialists who were interested in transparency and accountability, an ever-present topic in the aid sector. Soon after arriving at the event I realized in how many humanitarian contexts and fields of development work mapping can be a helpful tool. The ICCM brought together a diverse field of experts, from software developers and tech entrepreneurs, to geographers, aid workers and policy analysts

The programme of the conference was similarly diverse; a number of participants used the conference to present current projects to the audience. They showed how maps were used for coordinating in crisis situations, but also how they might be used to prevent disasters from happening in the first place. The participants demonstrated great enthusiasm for the potential of crisis mapping. Following many lively presentations, the keynote speakers struck a more sober tone. Atefah Riazi (Chief Information Technology Officer of the UN), Jemilah Mahmood (Head of the World Humanitarian Summit) and David Miliband (Head of the IRC) spoke about the many humanitarian challenges ahead and questioned whether technology could provide a partial answer to any of them.

Having spent two days at the ICCM, I had met many interesting people and had plenty of food for thought about using technology in humanitarian work. What struck me most was how often applications of crisis mapping were in line what my colleagues at Mercator are working on this year. Experts are creating and using maps in the context of disaster relief, in order to document instances of electoral fraud, or else to coordinate the response to the Ebola outbreak. Mapping is not the answer to humanitarian problems, but it can be vital in coordinating response programs and in helping those who work in the field.