Photograph by Kris Krüg, PopTech
What can speed humanitarian response to tsunami-ravaged coasts? Expose human rights atrocities? Launch helicopters to rescue earthquake victims? Outwit corrupt regimes?
But not just any map. Patrick Meier pioneers the lifesaving new field of crisis mapping and makes it available, accessible, and free to humanitarian organizations and volunteers across the globe. As director of crisis mapping at the nonprofit technology company Ushahidi and co-founder of the Standby Volunteer Task Force, he is helping to revolutionize the power and effectiveness of relief efforts worldwide.
Imagine the chaotic scene on the ground as any natural disaster or human rights crisis unfolds. Then imagine an online map lit up with crucial information pouring in, real time, reflecting exactly what is happening, what is most urgently needed, and precisely where.
Welcome to the 24/7 world of crisis mapping, where texts, tweets, emails, and mobile phone photos and videos meet the world's most highly respected, official players in humanitarian response. Meier is bringing the two worlds together for the first time, connecting an explosion of social media and satellite imagery with the United Nations, U.S. Marines and Coast Guard, the World Health Organization, Amnesty International, and other groups that can mobilize help when the worst crises hit.
"Situational awareness is key to allocating resources and coordinating logistics," says Meier. "These dynamic ever changing maps are like having your own helicopter. They provide a bird's-eye view as events unfold across time and space. Gaining information like this straight from crisis zones is a game changer; these technologies didn't exist just a few years ago."
Meier's nonprofit company, Ushahidi, provides free, open-sourced platforms that allow anyone in the world to gather information and use it to create live, crowd-sourced, multimedia maps. Ushahidi, which means "witness" in Swahili, began during Kenya's postelection violence in 2008.
"It was a simple Google map of Kenya with a form people could fill out to describe what they saw during the violence," he explains. "An SMS option was also provided so people could send text messages." Since then, the technology has been refined and used in more than 140 countries with software available in 20 languages.
When crises occur, the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) gathers messages, photos, video, and high-resolution satellite imagery and integrates them on a live Ushahidi map. More than 800 volunteers from 80 different countries make up the decentralized network that works closely with local and international responders. The trained, tech-savvy mappers mobilize at a moment's notice. Since they occupy every time zone, work can continue around the clock. "Anyone can join and use a skill set they already have or learn a new one," says Meier. "These people are passionate about helping and making a difference."
Volunteers are divided into 11 specialized teams, including a geo-location group dedicated to finding GPS coordinates, a verification team tasked with verifying social media information, and a satellite team analyzing images from space.
In January 2010, just a few hours after a devastating earthquake shook Haiti, Meier set up a Ushahidi map with real-time tweets from disaster-affected areas. A free text message number allowed those inside Haiti to communicate critical needs and specific locations, while volunteers translated information from Haitian Creole to English. Ten days later, the head of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) called it the most comprehensive, up-to-date map available to the humanitarian community.
"The U.S. Marine Corps used the map to plan helicopter search-and-rescue operations to evacuate people who were trapped or injured," Meier remembers. "We passed on the most urgent texts to the U.S. Coast Guard via live online chats and partnered with the United Nations to customize the map with the most relevant indicators for disaster response. Hundreds of lives were saved according to the Marine Corps and Coast Guard."
Ushahidi's success in Haiti inspired groups in Japan to create their own map when a 2011 earthquake and tsunami overwhelmed the nation. "We shared all our workflows and gave them a crash course in what to do. Anyone can access, use, and adapt our workflows from the SBTF website," Meier notes. Approximately 3,000 reports were mapped each week, providing live updates to the Japanese government, foreign embassies, and relief organizations.
The United Nations asked the SBTF to create a live social media map using the Ushahidi platform to guide operations when word of mass atrocities in Libya reached the world. "This was a first ever partnership between a very formal, established humanitarian organization and our decentralized, nebulous network of worldwide volunteers," Meier points out. Data from the map proved crucial to relief efforts since the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) had no official presence in Libya at the time. Post-conflict, another map was created to make a nationwide health assessment for the World Health Organization (WHO).
Al Jazeera worked with Ushahidi to refocus world attention on the humanitarian crisis in Somalia after aid organizations had been forced to leave the country. "We went straight to thousands of Somalis and let them speak for themselves via text messages we translated describing how communities and families were being affected," Meier says. "Our ‘Somalia Speaks' map revealed all kinds of news that helped advocate for action at a time when this kind of information was being overlooked by the international media and humanitarian community."
Other Ushahidi maps and volunteers have helped mobilize response amid a cyclone in Madagascar, floods in Columbia and Pakistan, mass human rights violations in Syria, forest fires in Russia, and emergency cold conditions in the Balkans.
"We've seen repressive regimes use technology to spy on, terrorize, and imprison citizens," Meier observes. "But we're proving what can happen when ordinary people become digitally empowered, collaborate, and use technology to make a positive, lifesaving difference. It's incredibly rewarding, reassuring, and inspiring."
Patrick's Blog Posts
- Robotics in Reverse: A Brief Thought Experiment
- Humanitarian Robotics: The $15 Billion Question?
- This is What Happens When You Send Flying Robots to Nepal
- How to Democratize Humanitarian Robotics
- On Humanitarian Innovation versus Robotic Natives
- How Can Digital Humanitarians Best Organize for Disaster Response?
- The Value of Timely Information During Disasters (Measured in Hours)
- Humanitarian Cargo Delivery via Aerial Robotics is Not Science Fiction (Updated)
- Think Global, Fly Local: The Future of Aerial Robotics for Disaster Response
- Aerial Robotics for Payload Delivery in Developing Countries: Open Questions
In Their Words
Many humanitarian organizations say our crisis-mapping technology is revolutionizing disaster relief efforts and human rights monitoring. Now we can pinpoint urgent needs instantly, saving time and lives.
Listen to Patrick Meier
Hear an interview with Meier on National Geographic Weekend.
00:08:00 Patrick Meier
When war and natural disasters strike regions, people need swift assistance to avoid further devastation. Crisis mapper and 2012 National Geographic Emerging Explorer Patrick Meier has a solution - communicate by Twitter and text message with those on the ground in need and map the problems on their behalf, so those providing help can best target their resources.
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