As storytelling evolves in the digital age, we are presented with a challenge: Can data alone tell a story?

When I walked into the International Conference of Crisis Mappers in New York this past month, I believed that maps were relatively static: a way to freeze objects, people, and places at a specific moment in time. It turns out that mapping, in the hands of this visionary community working on maps to enable social good, can be so much more.

Data can tell us the who, the when, and the where. But it’s up to us to figure out the why, the how, and the “so what.” And therein lies the challenge—and the beauty—of crisis mapping.

As Nigel Snoad from Google Crisis Response explained in his introductory remarks, mapping is a way to tell stories from around the world – to alter existing dialogues and perceptions and influence the way that critical issues are framed on an international scale. As Snoad wisely summarized: “We take a position when we put things on a map.”

Crisis mapping touches upon key themes that we work on at WITNESS, such as harnessing community-based knowledge, measuring impact, and weighing privacy. It also raises many interesting possibilities and projects. Could we map where abuses are most likely to occur in a protest situation, so that citizen witnesses could position themselves accordingly?  Could remote volunteers use crowd-sourced maps, such as those produced by Open Street Map, to guide human rights defenders in the moment – encouraging them to capture landmarks that will help verify the video later, or enabling multiple witnesses to capture scenes of abuse from different locations? I found myself mulling over many exciting applications as I reflected on key themes and challenges arising from the sessions.

Empowering individuals to tell their own stories

If mapping is, at its core, a storytelling venture, how do crisis mappers handle the question of knowledge appropriation? Traditional crisis mapping often takes place in the context of a major humanitarian disaster, such as the Haitian earthquake of 2010, where volunteers attempted to map damaged roads and buildings, the fastest routes to hospitals, and access to clean water. This example lends itself to the stereotype of international, largely Western organizations parachuting in to “save” local populations. Even a project like Open Street Map, which aims to map the entire world – thereby putting vulnerable and remote populations on the world’s radar – can run the risk of dictating a community’s reality from afar by relying on outside volunteers to create maps of areas and resources.

To counter this, crisis mappers rely largely on local volunteers, who often feed data back to remote organizations. This collaborative process returns power to the community. Individuals are able to determine where their best assets and resources lie—as well as what is most needed. As Kate Chapman from the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) explained, crisis mapping is about sharing resources and knowledge with local populations as opposed to delivering technology—similar to WITNESS’ approach to training and equipping video activists with the skills to advocate for change in their communities. By choosing what data to map, individuals and groups can control their own narratives.

Redefining impact and accountability

For nonprofits and organizations in the social good sector – including WITNESS – the question of monitoring and evaluation looms large. While this push for transparency and accountability often comes from donors, keynote speaker David Miliband (who heads up the International Rescue Committee) argued that accountability should “flow downward” to the beneficiaries of humanitarian aid. In other words, the direct beneficiaries should be empowered to provide feedback and ensure that the services provided are useful, timely, and of high quality. This may seem like common sense – but it does not always align with standard monitoring and evaluation processes, which often emphasize the results an organization promised to its donors, rather than what is most useful to its beneficiaries.

In brainstorming ways to address this issue, keynote speaker Jemilah Mahmood brought up the idea of a Yelp for humanitarian organizations, to help ensure that they are delivering on their promises and meeting local needs. This was inspired by powerful examples, such as the story of a woman in a Darfuri refugee camp who confronted a humanitarian organization via text message to ask why she did not receive the services that she was promised. Reframing the discussion in these terms challenges the NGO world at large to restructure its evaluation system, so that beneficiaries are empowered consumers as opposed to passive recipients of aid.

Balancing open sourced data with privacy and security concerns

What if people have sensitive information that they do not want to put on a map? What if the act of mapping puts individuals or communities at risk?

Several presenters, including WITNESS’ own Morgan Hargrave, discussed ways that technology and reliable data can help to lessen these risks. Alison Cole from the Open Society Justice Initiative highlighted the tension between a journalist whose instinct is to protect his source, and a lawyer who needs to reveal his source for evidentiary purposes.  She argued that with apps like InformaCam and EyeWitness – which capture crucial metadata from videos and photos – it could be possible to cross-examine the piece of media, or the people who developed this technology, instead of a physical witness – thereby eliminating that tension altogether.

This type of thinking, which is deeply relevant to WITNESS’ work on Video as Evidence, can profoundly impact the crisis mapping community. If, for example, Syrian doctors are mapping attacks against medical facilities and presenting that data externally, it does not matter who captured the data, as long as we can attest to the accuracy of the information itself.

Moving Forward

The possible uses of mapping for human rights are endless – and WITNESS has much to learn from and share with the crisis mapping community going forward. From the potential of projects like open drone map –  an open source tool for turning images and videos from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) into maps and models to identify powerful weapons or perpetrators of abuse, to the prospect of simply plotting citizen footage on a map to re-create an incident, crisis mapping can help activists tell – or better yet, show their stories and communicate their needs and desires more effectively.

Alexandra Zaretsky is the External Relations Assistant at WITNESS.

Featured image: “Syria crisis: the violence mapped by the UN,” a map from March 2012 showing where violence occurred in Syria and the number of casualties, Freedom House.

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