A new United Nations-requested project to map the ongoing civil war in Libya is entering 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?
Many have used the Ushahidi mapping platform to monitor geo-political crises. But Libya is, by far, an unprecedented challenge. Volunteers associated with Crisis Mappers started a project called the Libya Crisis Map on March 1 at the request of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The Libya Crisis Map shows, with a 24-hour delay, live events on the ground in the ongoing Libyan conflict.
Events on the map include updates on military actions, evacuations, movement of refugees, and street fighting. Once tagged, events are given publicly accessible short descriptions, but more detailed information is restricted to users verified by the map's operators in an apparent bid to keep data from leaking to combatants. Data plotted to the map is put on a 24-hour delay in an effort to prevent the map from being mined for intelligence.
Operating in a war zone also means that, in some cases, the sourcing of events is obscured. The Libya Crisis Map's operators offer admirable transparency in listing media and non-governmental organization sources used to populate the map. However, informants on the ground in Libya associated with contributing organizations also provide information used to update events. Information on the identity of these informants is not known to general users of the site.
In an email to Fast Company, Crisis Mappers' Patrick Meier noted that the map was extremely quick to set up and put on the web, taking only “one hour to launch and then regular customization.”
The Crisis Mappers volunteers working on the project consist of an assortment of information technology professionals, online security consultants, and non-governmental organization experts based in the United States, Africa, and Europe. Crisis Mappers describes itself as “the largest and most active international community of experts, practitioners, policymakers, technologists, researchers, journalists, scholars, hackers, and skilled volunteers engaged at the intersection between humanitarian crises, technology, and crisis mapping.” According to Meier, the OCHA activated the task force working on the project and is “providing feedback [on] what data and reports are of most interest to them for humanitarian preparedness operations.”
Most of Crisis Mappers' best known past work took place in Haiti following the devastating 2010 earthquake. According to Meier, covering the Libya conflict is far different from Haiti:
Crisis mapping Libya is definitely no Haiti, for many reasons. The first is that unlike Haiti, we didn’t have to recruit crisis mapping volunteers from scratch. We didn’t have to spend a third of our time training volunteers. We didn’t have to develop new work flows and protocols from thin air. All we had to do was activate the Standby Task Force and everyone knew what to do, like set up dedicated Skype chats (communicating via email is too slow in these scenarios, networked communication is the way to go). Our volunteer CrisisMappers had already been trained and had even participated in an official UN crisis simulation exercise with OCHA in Colombia a few months earlier. […]
We are creating a live map of a hostile situation still unfolding. Haiti provided a permissive environment, politically and geographically. Libya couldn’t be more different. We experienced the serious challenges of crisis mapping a hostile environment when we created a crisis map of Khartoum at the request of local Sudanese activists. This was a stressful deployment but one that was able to provide an important window into what was happening in Khartoum.
In the case of Libya, our humanitarian partner requested that the crisis map be password protected. We intend to make the map public after this phase of the humanitarian operations is over. In the meantime, the screenshots below provide a good picture of what the platform looks like. In the first 48 hours since the activation of the Task Force, over 220 individual reports have been mapped, many including pictures and some with video footage.
What Meier and his team are working on has profound implications for aid work, military analysis, journalists, and academics: With Ushahidi's versatile platform, they've helped permanently alter our understanding of major world crises. Libya is just the latest example of that.