Digital Mapping: The New Relief Effort

In countries affected by natural disasters, political upheaval and other crises, relief efforts have traditionally been carried out by people on the ground. But with instant worldwide communication possible via the Internet, a whole new breed of international volunteers are helping to make a positive impact. Schools offering Culture & Media Studies degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

Libyan crisis Japan Haiti Chile earthquake Pakistan floods crisis mapping live mapping social media microblogging aggregating mappers political upheaval natural disasters relief work refugee

A Global Effort

The first few months of 2011 have seen severe turmoil around the world. From the violent political crackdown carried out by pro-Gaddafi forces in Libya to the devastation of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, this time has left many people feeling helpless. While the Internet and other media supply images of the violence and destruction, they don't exactly provide opportunities to help.

Or do they? A recent Web-mapping project has brought to the forefront just how effective technology can be for helping people affected by crises. In the wake of the political violence in Libya, a collective of 'crisis mappers' has emerged. These volunteers, sitting at computers throughout the world, are using new media tools like social networks and microblogging sites to provide location-specific updates on the struggle between government and rebel forces.

Just what can be achieved through these efforts at virtual cartography? First and foremost, humanitarian workers on the ground can learn where food, medical and shelter needs are greatest. Hundreds of thousand of Libyans have already been displaced, and more refugees are expected. Aid workers can also find out which areas are most affected by severe violence so as to remain safe. Additionally, maps can enhance public awareness and aid in documenting history.

Libyan crisis Japan Haiti Chile earthquake Pakistan floods crisis mapping live mapping social media microblogging aggregating mappers political upheaval natural disasters relief work refugee

A Practice Gaining Momentum

For some of those contributing to the Libyan effort, this is not their first experience crisis mapping. Many also contributed to maps revealing humanitarian needs following recent natural disasters in Pakistan, Haiti and Chile. As with the Libyan map, volunteers documented distress messages and status updates from countless social media sources to provide a picture of on-the ground needs.

Envisioning long-term potential for crisis mapping to benefit relief efforts, a group of live mappers recently came together to form the Standby Task Force. This online community of more than 200 volunteers from some 30 countries is constantly at the ready. The collective quickly jumped into the action to address the situation in Libya after being requested to do so by the United Nations, which also saw the potential for virtual crisis mapping.

While the need for on-site humanitarian help will never go away, Web 2.0 technologies certainly do seem to have a part to play in providing vital information to those who are helping on the ground. That's not to mention the important role new technologies can play in keeping people around the world informed about what's going on and providing a vital communication link with those in affected areas.

Interested in seeing a crisis mapper in action? Check out this interview with Dr. Jen Ziemke.

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