ICT for humanitarian response: 6 things to know about crisis mapping

Maybe the hardest part of this article was to think about the title. At first, I thought about calling it “The revolution of crisis mapping in humanitarian response”. But, is it really a revolution? Then, I thought: “The ‘could be’ revolution of crisis mapping…” But, actually, crisis mapping has made a difference too big as to call it a ‘could be’ revolution. Finally, I decided to use something like “6 reasons why…”, or “6 things you should know…” Maybe is not the best descriptive title, but it is catchy!

Since the Haiti earthquake in 2010 and the rise of Ushahidi, crisis mapping apps have demonstrated the power which resides in the crowds to make available what we could call ‘life-saving data’. This tools made possible by new ICT developments are, indeed, able to transform humanitarian response strategies into a more collective, participatory relationship between NGO’s and humanitarian agencies, and the public, both local public and foreign, where the latter are no more passive, but active, and global humanitarian actors are dependent on them. But this is, obviously, talking in a perfect world. What is the reality? What are the challenges? What is the future of crisis mapping? I will try to summarize the basics about these questions in these “6 things to know about crisis mapping”:

1.        Moving according to the crowd’s voice.

Unfortunately, this is very unlikely to happen under a neoliberal approach to humanitarian crisis response. But, no doubt, this the highest potential of crisis mapping tools such as MicroMappers or The Missing Maps Project. When locals inform about disaster affected areas, post pictures about it, geotag the exact location of the data, rate the level of destruction, and more so, agencies have a bird’s eye perspective on the crisis. This data configured by location and categories, among other features, gives the chance to coordinate efforts between humanitarian actors according to their capacities and strengths, and having a wider picture of where the aid is urgent, and what kind of aid is needed.

Taking the public into active mode before a crisis situation doesn’t apply only to locals who post data from the field, but also foreign public such as donors that accessing the app can decide to respond with an accurate vision of what is needed and where. That is one of the Ushahidi and MicroMappers creator, Patrick Meier, main purposes with his next project at the QCRI: MatchApp.

2.       Too interesting for global politics.

This is probably one of the main dangers to crisis mapping and its yet moral and social reasoning that places the value of individuals before the value of collective entities and global politics. It has already happened. On 25th September, 2013, Meier launched MicroMappers one month before the scheduled plan by request of the UN in response to the Pakistan earthquake. This is not to say it was a bad idea to use MicroMappers for the Pakistan humanitarian response, but to reflect the influence global politics can have over crisis mapping technologies. This is how Givoni concludes his article on the issue: “For now, the lesson to be drawn from its introduction of ICTs into global politics is that crisis mapping is too tightly interlocked with the political orderings of a world in a normalized state of crisis to be able to ‘‘change the world one map at a time’’ (Meier, 2012: 100), as its passionate developers would have wished.”

3.       The evolution of crisis mapping is linked to the evolution of so many other ICT’s

I could number a few of them, but I will mention only the three I consider most important:

Satellite data: It might seem that satellite data is very well identified for most of us, but the global south might not have such thinking. That is the reason why of Missing Maps: “to go where Google doesn’t go”, not because they cannot go, but because it’s simply not interesting enough to go.

Social media: When the Typhoon Pablo devastated the Philippines in 2012, 20.000 tweets were analyzed by the UN in order to create their official crisis map, adopted by OCHA and made public on the official Google Crisis Map of the Philippines. Also, part of MicroMappers structure, for instance, is based on the social media features. It makes sense, then, if relevant changes in social media networks suppose relevant changes in crisis mapping tools. In the end, the people that are ultimately using such tools are used to engage with social media, and frankly, there is no need to go against the crowd’s usage habits of ICT’s.

Internet access: Crisis mapping tools, as so many ICT tools, are engaged to Wi-Fi and internet access. However, there are have been some interesting experiments as it was the Voix des Kivu.

4.       Microtasking is the key

“Make it easy” is also the rule for the good performance of crisis mapping, especially when addressing a public so wide. The “minimization of effort” does not fight with “variability of effort” (Givoni, 2016).

“Following that click will set you on the path to help the United Nation’s important relief efforts . . . So if you’ve got a bit of time on your hands – even 2 minutes goes a long way – then help us make a meaningful difference in the world” (Patrick Meier, in ‘Calling all digital Jedis: Support UN response to super typhoon Ruby!’, iRevolutions blog, 6th December, 2014)

5.       Who decides what is useful data, technology or humans?

MicroMappers founder’s thinking, who has confident trust in technology to be smart enough to capitalize and organize the huge amount of data that comes through the app, if filters and categories are clear enough to the users. On the opposite side, the founders of Missing Maps (HOT) do not give technology that credit, and put their trust in training sessions and a well established hierarchy where new users are mentored by more expert users.

6.       The debate is open: how to collect data, and actually make the most profit out of it.

This debate is spread over anything related with big data, and certainly is reflected in the theory discourse that surrounds big data and humanitarian response where crisis mapping plays a significant role. In global politics, including development issues, collection of data has been set as a priority before selection of data. This translates into much work in gathering information that will not necessarily have a high percentage of usage, or effective usage.  The general consensus about crisis mapping tools for authors such as Givoni (2016), and Read, Taithe and MacGinty (2016) seems clear: The potentiality of crisis mapping is not being exploited to its fullest, neither is near of doing so.


Reading used for this article:

  • Gilbert-Knight, A. (2013): Social media, crisis mapping and the new frontier in disaster response. The Guardian, October 8th, 2013, Retrieved: September 24th, 2017. URL: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2013/oct/08/social-media-microtasking-disaster-response
  • Givoni M. (2016): Between micro mappers and missing maps: Digital humanitarianism and the politics of material participation in disaster response. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 2016, Vol. 34(6): 1025-1043
  • Read, R., Taithe B., and Mac Ginty, R. (2016): Data hubris? Humanitarian information systems and the mirage of technology. Third World Quarterly, 2016, Vol. 37(8): 1314-1331



  1. Hi, this is Carl from So.Act. Really interesting topic to read about.
    Are there large differences in usage of data depending on use of smart phone where one can use social media to alert compared to an older mobile phone where SMS most probably will be used?
    Also, on a broader spectra, is this whole discussion of big data a quick-fix compared to all the issues we as humans create with global warming and storms/floodings i.e. Natural disasters? I’m thinking about urbanization, how we build – where we build and how we basically – live.

    • Pau Abad Tent

      Hi Carl! Thanks for the comment! There seems to be indeed large differences between smartphones and non smart phones. Most crisis mapping apps seem to be designed according to the popular use of smartphones, social media, etc. I understand your point. Depending on the country, old phones may still be common among the population. However, from my own experience in Haiti a few years ago, I was surprised by the high amount of people using smartphones even in remote areas, even though they were really basic devices. And I believe it is also the case in many other undeveloped countries.

      Responding to your second question, the journal articles mentioned below the article agree in that the gathering of data is not new, and not profitable if such data is just gathered, but not used in a proper way. And I don’t believe big data is the only solution to these issues you refer to. There are many elements interacting, and big data is just one of them, but an increasing one for sure.

  2. Ali Ababneh

    Hi Pau, I like the idea of crises mapping, and actually I believe it’s important to consider before starting the response in any crises as it can help identifying the most affected areas or set the priorities as it provides swift situation analysis and can be used as the initial response plan. But how affective these tools or application being used so far? And actually I believe that the 5th point ”who decides what is useful data, technology or humans” is a topic that need further analysis and can be a quite interesting to explore more! Not only who but also how ?

  3. Ali Ababneh

    Hi Pau, I like the idea of crises mapping, and actually I believe it’s important to consider before starting the response in any crises as it can help identifying the most affected areas or set the priorities as it provides swift situation analysis and can be used as the initial response plan. But how affective these tools or application being used so far? And actually I believe that the 5th point ”who decides what is useful data, technology or humans” is a topic that need further analysis and can be interesting to explore more! Not only who but also how?

    • Pau Abad Tent

      Thanks Ali for commenting! The tools have proven to be very effective since the Haiti earthquake in 2010. Humanitarian actors have been able to access trustworthy data (instead of misleading or even fake information spread through social media and others) thanks to these tools. The necessity and improvement of these tools during crisis relief is not under debate by experts, but only its independence of global politics and the way to make the most out of these tools. This leads to your second question, who decides how these tools are used and what data is most necessary? These seem to be the questions that are being asked by developers and theorists on the topic.

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