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Mapping Africa’s Humanitarian Situation


“Sometimes there is just nothing more you can do than report what you see.” This was Erik Hersman‘s impetus behind creating a tool called Ushahidi, which allows people in Kenya to report acts of violence via mobile phones and theinternet, and have them appear automatically on an online map for others to see.

Ushahidi is a mashup, a blending of two Internet applications to relay information in a visually compelling way. Over the past few months, experimental mashups, particularly those centered on Google Maps, have emerged in an attempt gain a better understanding of humanitarian emergencies and democratic processes.

While Ushahidi is unique in allowing witnesses to report incidents of violence via mobile phone with picture or video, there are three other particularly interesting Africa-centric smashup experiments, each with a slightly different set of functions. This first is Darfur Museum Mapping Initiative|Crisis in Darfur, which is a collaboration of Google Earth and the U.S. Holocaust Museum. This platform allows the user to view professionally collected photos, video and written testimony from Darfur, as well as view images of destroyed villages and IDP camps.

Also, the Zimbabwe Civic Action Support Group recently developed the Mapping Electoral Conditions in Zimbabwe project, a map-based collection of reports of everything from voter fraud to looting to vote buying. Understanding that a crackdown from the authorities is more likely in Zimbabwe’s tightly regulated news space, this site is designed as a secondary news source, reporting only reports published by others. Finally, my friends and colleagues at Northwestern University’s Center for Global Engagement launched, which is an effort to map “ongoing community-led philanthropic partnerships in northern Uganda.”

There seems to two be two particularly compelling reasons that mashups are effective. First, reporting an act of violence or voter fraud is an act of participation in a chaotic environment. It’s a way to be a witness, and urge the world to do the same. Daudi of MentalAcrobatics writes:
“We as Kenyans are guilty of having short-term memories. Yesterday’s villains are today’s heroes. We sweep bad news and difficult decision under the carpet; we do not confront the issues in our society and get shocked when the country erupts as it did two months ago.”

Secondly, an interactive map is a remarkably effective way to tell a story. Tragic violence in Kenya’s Rift Valley or Sudan’s Darfur calls for empathy and action, but it is difficult to feel a connection with a place you can’t imagine. C.J Menard’s famous map of Napoleon’s march to Moscow is often hailed as the best statistical graphic ever made, because it powerfully represents the decimation of 470,000 troops in the frigid Russian winter of 1812. Mashups like Ushahidi and This is Zimbabwe do not claim to be statistically complete representations, but like Menard’s drawing they aim to pull the reader into a visually acute experience.

Tools like Ushahidi are created in order to compellingly present crimes that should not be allowed to face impunity. The obvious criticism, perhaps most acutely felt by those who make these tools, is that they do not actually do anything to help prevent crimes or save lives.

However, many are working to change this. Patrick Meier, a PhD candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a Doctoral Research Fellow at the Harvard Humanitarian Institute (HHI) is attempting to apply the lessons of digital activism to humanitarian early warning systems. Meier is developing a tool called the Humanitarian Sensor Web, which allows community leaders and service providers like the World Food Program to coordinate their efforts in emergency humanitarian situations. Further, the Sensor Web aims to serve as a source of collective intelligence, with a map-based database of places and events, which will help those who are responding to current crisis or planning for future security or humanitarian relief.

Needless to say, all of the tools discussed in this article are in their nascent (in web terms ‘beta’) stage, but they are evidence of an exciting new set of tools that can provide a variety of important functions, from demonstrating the need for a humanitarian intervention to actually implementing one.

cross-posted to In An African Minute

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