Dr. Jen Ziemke, Crisis Mapper at John Carroll University, Speaks to Learn.org

Social networking and communication tools like Twitter have been essential for getting information from inside countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Japan during recent crises. But did you know that these tools are also being used to deliver humanitarian aid? We recently spoke with Dr. Jen Ziemke, who's leading a team of international crisis mappers in gathering crucial information while in front of their computers. Schools offering Culture & Media Studies degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

Dr. Jen Ziemke

Learn.org: What's your academic background and how did you become interested in political science?

Dr. Ziemke: As a result of living on the Namibia-Angola border as a Peace Corps volunteer in the late 1990s, I became interested in learning more about the politics and dynamics of civil war. In particular, I became curious about the strategic logic of violence, and the conditions under which violence against civilians takes place in war.

I decided to go to graduate school to learn more about battlefield dynamics in general and the Angolan war in particular. My undergraduate degree focused on International Studies, but it was graduate school that best prepared me to begin to begin to understand these complicated dynamics. I received my Ph.D. in political science from the University of Wisconsin - Madison, with a concentration in comparative politics and international relations. To complete my dissertation about the Angolan civil war, I collected 20,000 articles and archival materials about battle and massacre events of this war and conducted statistical tests to help better understand observed patterns of violence.

Learn.org Many of your courses at John Carroll University (JCU) are on international relations. Can you tell us more about your areas of focus for both research and teaching?

JZ: My primary responsibility at JCU is to help teach the core sequence in international relations. I enjoy teaching the introductory course on the subject most of all, especially to students who do not yet necessarily have a passion for the subject. I also teach upper-division courses on international security, law and human rights, international institutions and conflict processes, as well as a comparative course on African politics.

In addition, I developed a course to help prepare students for an immersive experience, entitled 'Rwanda in Comparative African Perspective.' The fact that faculty have the freedom to teach a wide range of courses across several subfields (international relations, comparative politics, crisis mapping, etc.) is a great feature of teaching at JCU. I love learning, and teaching is the best opportunity I have had so far to really learn a subject from the inside out.

Regarding my research interests: The crisis mapping community has been working together to help flesh out the parameters of this nascent new field. Research that began in 2005 continues to evolve and relate back to what I am learning every day from my work in crisis mapping. The next big growth area for crisis mappers will likely be heightened awareness of the critical importance of analysis, visualization and other tools that can help make sense of all the data we are collecting - otherwise we find we just end up with a mash of dots on a map.

In particular, I'm interested in mapping conflicts and discovering what can be learned about the process of war itself. Using micro-level data on wartime events, I hope to learn more about changing dynamics on the ground. I am also interested in exploring the nature of new networks like the crisis mappers from the perspective of emergent behavior, swarming and complexity science. My colleague in the Math and Computer Science Department at John Carroll University, Dr. Dan Palmer, does fascinating research in this area that is highly important for helping explain the dynamics of networks, crowdsourcing and crisis mapping.

Learn.org You've recently been working with the United Nations to build a 'Libya Crisis Map.' What is the Libya Crisis Map and how are people contributing to it from outside of Libya?

JZ: Volunteers from around the world, loosely coordinated via Skype chats, have been working around the clock to comb Twitter, Facebook, news sites and official reports for real-time information to place on the Libya Crisis Map.

This started when UN-OCHA requested the activation of the Standby Task Force (SBTF), who then leveraged their power and expertise in this domain to mobilize and organize volunteers into teams to assist with the media monitoring, mapping, verification and analysis that is part of any such deployment. The SBTF did a remarkable job creating the Libya Crisis Map, proving that one can effectively leverage volunteer networks to help assist with humanitarian response.

Learn.org You're also part of the international network of crisis mappers. What other projects has this group been involved in and what projects have you worked on?

JZ: I'm the co-founder and co-director of the International Network of Crisis Mappers. Together with my colleague, Patrick Meier, we convened the first International Conference on Crisis Mapping in 2009 (ICCM 2009) at John Carroll University. At the end of this first conference we launched the network in order to stay in touch.

Our network has been involved in hundreds of projects all around the world, including mapping violence in Sudan and Libya and earthquakes in Haiti, Chile and New Zealand, as well as helping to track the current situation in Japan.

Learn.org What tools are available for crisis mappers and which ones are your favorites?

JZ: There are dozens of different tools available for crisis mapping, all with different functionalities and capabilities. We need all of these kinds of solutions in order to tackle the real-world tough challenges that we face in this field.

Learn.org Do you incorporate the concepts or tools of crisis mapping into any of your courses? In what ways?

JZ: Right now I'm teaching a course at JCU entitled 'Crisis Mapping, Politics and New Media.' It is one of the first courses in the world on the subject.

You can view the course materials I have created so far online. I hope to share them with the community as we learn the parameters and pedagogy informing this new field together.

Learn.org What knowledge or experience is required to be a crisis mapper and what advice would you give to someone who's interested in becoming one?

JZ: Join the International Network of Crisis Mappers and our Google group, read the blog posts and videos from our conference that interest you or turn to my colleague Patrick Meier's blog to find a wealth of materials on the subject. You can also read new reports available through the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative's program on crisis mapping and early warning and check out the syllabus and course materials I have created for this purpose.

Interested individuals should also consider joining the Standby Task Force. Several other colleagues and friends are also doing fabulous work in this domain, far too many to mention here. Their projects include teaching a course at Tufts University on crisis mapping, having fun over at Grassrootsmappers.net and the incredible work of the team at Open Street Map. These steps should at least help you find your niche in this new field.

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