Jen Ziemke, co-director of the International Network of Crisis Mappers, says interactive crisis mapping can help protect people caught in conflict — but only if the way we think about and use crisis maps adapts to changing modes of warfare.
In just a few years since the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, digital, online crisis maps have become a standard tool for humanitarians seeking to better understand both the big picture, and the micro, street-by-street level needs of people affected by disaster or conflict.
But there is another, less-understood way that these maps can play a vital humanitarian role, particularly during times of war or violence: to serve as witness, to capture and document alleged violations of international humanitarian law, and to shine a light on those who torture, unlawfully detain, or otherwise violate the dignity of their fellow human beings.
Unlike conflict maps of the past, these interactive, real-time maps can include a vast array of data: satellite imagery, aerial photography, video captured with a cell phone, eyewitness testimony sent by e-mail, etc. If managed well, these maps can then help document specific abuses related to all sides in a conflict, they can reveal important patterns and highlight areas or times when protection of vulnerable people is most needed. In that way, they provide evidence to back up humanitarian appeals for greater protection measures — even potentially as an entry point for future investigations of war crimes.
One of the best examples of conflict mapping done well is Syria Tracker (see article in Red Cross Red Crescent magazine), which has collected reports of abuses and crimes against civilians, perpetrated by all armed groups, since the very beginning of the conflict.
This site has added a new dimension to crisis maps developed for prior conflicts, such as during the revolution and subsequent civil war in Libya, in which the Libya Crisis Map tracked, among other events, the movement of refugees, food and water requests, and the evolving situation on the battlefield.
The United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) initiated the Libya crisis map in order to improve their situational awareness of this complex and changing environment. This map helped identify gaps in humanitarian assistance and provision, and to chart next steps.
Syria Tracker has taken things a step farther by gathering a wide range of reports from citizen observers, who report on people’s specific, daily humanitarian needs, as well as on specific incidents of executions, rape, bombing of religious buildings, and the killings of civilians, among other things.
Mapping such atrocities not only helps humanitarians respond to specific, immediate needs. It also provides a better understanding of the way conflicts evolve and reveal important trends and processes inherent during warfare.
One case in point is the Angola Crisis Map, an historical mapping project that tracked the history of all known battles, massacres and territorial gains and losses over this 41 year long war, comprising some 10,000 events. Evidence from the study suggests that risk to civilians during the Angolan war was highest after combatants sustained large battlefield, territorial, or symbolic and strategic losses. When an army is losing, the likelihood that combatants engage in violations towards civilians drastically increases.
Research in political science suggests that most civil conflicts do not end by negotiated settlement but by military victory over a defeated army. That means that when analysts observe what seems to be the “endgame”, and one army is being pushed back toward inevitable defeat, practitioners and policymakers should be on increased alert for violations against civilians in the area. The creation of humanitarian corridors or other protection measures should be prepared in advance and readily deployable for these contingencies.
With this in mind, it’s also important to consider that in today’s world, the mere presence of a live crisis map could conceivably change the course of events on the ground. Because crisis maps are near-real time reflections of live conflicts, their mere presence means events may not truly be independent observations. They could be used for propaganda purposes, or become a new battlefield for misinformation intended to deceive an enemy.
Fortunately, this is already a hot topic within the mapping community with considerable discussion about how to ensure the reliability, neutrality and independence of data, as well as safety of those who submit reports.
Mapping the geography of relationship
As the nature of conflict changes, the maps we use must also adapt. Today we are at an historical juncture when the increasing availability of real time, geo-referenced event data making maps with dots an attractive first visualization of this complex data.
But today’s conflicts cannot be best understood merely as a catalogue of events that take place between certain lines, dots and coloured areas on a computer screen.
Consider the counter-insurgency wars of the past decade in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen. Wars in this era are less about place and space, conquering and holding territory or even acquiring strategic locations, than they are about other features and dynamics. Thus, the best way to visualize some modern armed struggles are through network maps, which are about revealing the relationships that shape each strategic context (see attached map of the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo).
Understanding the role that personal networks, histories, relationships, and symbols play in warfare should not be lost in the excitement of geographic maps. Understanding these relationships can help humanitarians navigate the complex mine fields of shifting alliances and intense feuds that are inherent in areas of strife and violence.
Just as new technology is changing the balance of power between people and states, well-trod political and military strategies are also shifting at precisely the time when wars are becoming more analytically complex. Most so-called “civil wars” are not solely domestic affairs but can often be best understood through the prism of international dynamics, regional rivalries or fragmented global diaspora.
Add layers of intrigue and secret manoeuvres, and suddenly “understanding” the data seems nearly impossible. Perhaps even today’s digital maps, rich with data and imagery, are not up to the task. That’s why the digital mapping community must urgently find better ways to represent all of the encoded in conflict — and in vast sets of data — so that these new tools can live up to their potential in terms of protecting the lives and dignity of people affected by war and violence.
By Jen Ziemke
Jen Ziemke is co-founder and co-director of the International Network of Crisis Mappers, associate professor at John Carroll University, Fellow at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and volunteer for Standby Taskforce deployments for Chile, Haiti and Libya.
This article originally appeared in the Australian Red Cross’s International Humanitarian Law magazine and was adapted for www.redcross.int