Online Volunteers and Crisis Mapping

An interesting article in the Washington Post about how online volunteers responded to the Haitian earthquake led me to discover the field of ‘crisis mapping’. The author of the article, Jaroslav Valuch, is the co-founder of an online crisis-mapping community, Standby Task Force which was formed in the aftermath of the recent disaster. As Valuch writes, the online volunteer community helped out by:

extracting vital information from Twitter feeds, by translating messages from Creole to English, by pinpointing on an interactive map the location of those still trapped, by categorizing water-shortage reports, by organizing and geo-locating essential data on hospitals and refugee camp locations, or by developing software applications that further improved all these efforts.

In these collaborations between social media and new forms of communication technology and between disaster victims and online volunteers, the crisis mapping communities were able to assist the traditional disaster relief responses. However as the author admits; the level of communication and co-operation between the ‘new’ and the ‘traditional’ left much room for improvement:

The response of the tech and crisis mapping volunteer community was to a large extent reactive. Yes it was flexible and adapted quickly, but the link between this group and the more traditional humanitarian responders wasn’t there in advance. It was a collaboration we were building even as the emergency unfolded, which proved to be a challenging task.

The field of crisis-mapping is an extremely interesting one and one that appears to be growing as the potential for the rapid developments in communications technology and social media made over the past decade begin to be realised. The second International Conference on Crisis Mapping was held a few months ago in Boston and an online platform, ushahidi.com, has been developed to unify the online crisis mapping responses. The ushahidi Haitian crisis map can be found here. An excellent blog that details developments in crisis-mapping and in technology to aid humanitarian work is Patrick Meiers blog, ‘iRevolution’. The area of crisis-mapping is a new one with much potential and one in which volunteers are playing the central role. This blog will aim to keep track of how it develops.


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