The New Cartographers

by Cathy Huang:

It was half past midnight at Tufts University, but despite the late hour, the basement computer lab pulsed with energy. The several dozen volunteers from the greater Boston area who were present had just one goal for the night: to map Port-Au-Prince, the collapsed capital of Haiti, on their computer screens thousands of miles away. The anxiety was palpable. A television in the corner played live footage of the earthquake’s destruction, but the volunteers—a motley group of professors, businessmen, and students—remained fixated on their computer and cell phone screens. As a French-speaking volunteer translated a Skype S.O.S. message about a family trapped under rubble, the man next to him guided his cursor to the location indicated and tagged the spot: “urgent help requested.”

Though none of the volunteers was able to witness the on-ground humanitarian crews, they carried on vigilantly. Forty-eight hours later, the team completed the most comprehensive map of Port-au-Prince ever rendered, allowing aid groups to instantly identify addresses of victims who required water, medical attention, and supplies. In the process, they had revealed to the world the life-saving potential of “wiki” technologies, as they are used to shape a new, web-based phenomenon called “neography.”

Kate Chapman, a self-taught “neo-geographer,” explained that, “in a disaster cycle, everyone has a piece of the picture. The more people are able to share information data across ecosystems, the more effective… disaster response [will be].” This information sharing takes place online through familiar platforms like Google Maps and Open Street Map, the cartographer’s equivalent of Wikipedia, ensuring that the technology remains accessible to anyone.

The team at Tufts mapping post-earthquake Haiti worked for a project called Ushahidi. Founded in the wake of the violent 2007 elections in Kenya, Ushahidi uses crowdsourcing for its “activist mapping.” People all over the world now use this free and open source software platform for mapping data during elections, natural disasters, and violent conflicts.


Patrick Meier, who directs crisis mapping for Ushahidi, also founded a young group called the International Network of Crisis Mappers (INCM). Crisis Mappers relies on some 1,500 volunteers, all unpaid, worldwide who interact through the organization’s website in forums, webinars, and maps. To join the Crisis Mapper network, one only needs Internet access, browsing experience, and an interest in online maps or news. Even Meier is a volunteer at the end of the day. The virtual map platforms allow people to work on projects as they have time, much like writers and editors for Wikipedia. Meier’s co-founder, Jennifer Ziemke, is piloting the first university course about crisis mapping at John Carroll University; when she is not teaching, Ziemke runs INCM projects and organizes conferences.

“Openness is essential,” she said. “Neography is one big collection of people’s insights, calculations, and observations from around the world. We don’t actually make anything new, but open platforms allow us to stitch together what’s already there and connect groups of people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to find one another.” Ziemke believes that accessibility will promote enthusiasm.

Screenshot of a real-time student protest map in London. (Samuel Carlisle)

“A lot of my students are excited. They pick up GIS [Geographical Information Systems] software easily and feel empowered. In fact, students anywhere can get involved by joining the Google group,” Ziemke said. The online group trains a Standby Task Force consisting of media monitors, translators, software engineers, and data specialists who take turns logging on and transforming on-ground information into mapped coordinates indicating areas of need, danger, or destruction.

Though INCM is the largest online group of crisis mappers, other, smaller networks exist around the world. MapAction, based in the United Kingdom, dispatched a team to Bolivia to map regions affected by severe flooding as part of a plan to better prepare the Bolivian government for similar crises down the road. The floods didn’t garner much international press attention, but the quieter struggles of flood victims were addressed by community mapping efforts. In 1995, the Borneo Project held Malaysian Borneo’s first community mapping workshop. Since then, community mapping has become incredibly popular among indigenous communities fighting for land rights. The Philippine Association for Inter-Cultural Development uses Participatory 3D modeling GPS and GIS applications to allow indigenous communities in the Philippines to claim their rights over ancestral domains. Ziemke hopes to put community maps to domestic use, too; She is planning to study and mitigate issues of homelessness and hunger in Cleveland, Ohio where she teaches.


After capturing international attention and praise for their successful mapping of Haiti, Crisis Mappers expanded their volunteer base and launched Ushahidi platforms for Chile, Egypt, and, most recently, Libya. Despite its aim of streamlining humanitarian aid, however, Crisis Mappers does not always operate without opposition. A new United Nations requested project to map the ongoing civil war in Libya has entered uncharted territory. “How do you map live military conflict on the web for the use of aid organizations, foreign governments, and expatriates while avoiding sensitive intelligence leaks or endangering the lives of sources?” Meier asked.

To address this problem, volunteers working on the Libya crisis maps send in their updates, but media monitors don’t publish the data until a day later in order to prevent the map from being mined for intelligence in the midst of civil war.

“Haiti provided a permissive environment, politically and geographically.” Meier said, sighing and adjusting his glasses. “Libya couldn’t be more different.” After all, autocratic regimes tend to favor censorship, and the openness of online maps can be threatening.

As web-based movements are apt to do, community mapping has fallen into the hands of young people. Sam Carlisle, a 23-year-old electronics engineer in the United Kingdom, combines his interests in programming and social activism by using Google Maps and Google Earth. After his girlfriend was trampled by police horses during a London university student protest, Carlisle sought an outlet for his frustrations with the government’s broken promises and abuse of police power.

“I didn’t want to sit by and watch my friends get brutalized by the police anymore. It just didn’t make sense to me,” Carlisle explained. He teamed up with 22-year-old Sam Gaus, a student at University College London, to create Sukey, a Smartphone web application that allows users to update maps of protest routes in real time. The maps show the locations of policemen, blocked streets, and potential spots of violence. Although Gaus and Carlisle often participate in student protests, both maintain that their app is not some instrument for inciting or promoting riots. Rather, it is designed to protect students from police violence, a frequent product of attempts to quell the protests. Before every gathering, Carlisle sends the same text message to Sukey users: “Stay sensible, stay safe.” Looking ahead, Gaus and Carlisle said that they hope to expand internationally and help students demonstrate peacefully worldwide.


Though Libyan and British officials don’t seem eager to partner with online mappers any time soon, such relationships could complement most governments. According to Meier, “crisis mapping platforms are to crisis zones what MRIs areto emergency rooms.” In that vein, just as medical personnel need the proper technology before they can diagnose and treat patients, crisis mappers require reliable internet connections. In areas where mobile and Internet access have been severed by either the government or by natural disasters, protesters and those needing help must improvise. Protestors and humanitarian workers in Egypt, for example, use dial-up connections and new “speak to tweet” technology, which converts voicemail recordings into Twitter messages.

Such technologies could have saved lives after an 8.9 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami hit Japan on March 11, 2011. Tao Guo, a geospatial software researcher based in Tokyo, is a standby Crisis Mappers volunteer. In the weeks after the tsunami, he has found his vocation to be a blessing, albeit a haunting one. Every day, he relays and charts information on the whereabouts of hundreds of disaster victims, any one of whom might be a colleague or childhood friend.

“[We must] collect, analyze and distribute the correct information to people,” Guo said. “But information without proper assessment might turn into rumors very fast. People rush to buy food in Tokyo, foreigners rush to escape from Japan … much of that can cause messes and disturb relief efforts.”

Guo believes the precision and authority of mapping technologies can be a real contribution. How the map will look upon completion is still a mystery, but its prospective benefits for his people keep him working. To practice their art, ancient cartographers needed keen observation skills, a quill, and enough parchment. Guo and his fellow crisis mappers need their laptops, cell phones, and, perhaps most importantly, each other and all of us.

Cathy Huang ’14 is in Morse College. Contact her at