Imagine being an aid worker isolated in rural Zimbabwe, where the worst cholera outbreak in 15 years has claimed more than 4,000 lives in recent months. You and your relief network are sprinkled across the country and the epidemic is evolving every day. How do you decide where help is most needed and coordinate your response?
What if there were a way to connect almost instantaneously by sending a text message to a website that indicated your location, status and needs on a map available to anyone in the world? This is what organizations like WikiMapAid are trying to make happen. Many humanitarian organizations are considering these user-based mapping systems, some of which integrate Twitter, SMS, email and collaborative wiki software to create interactive maps that track everything from poverty and infectious disease to natural disasters and political protests.
Using mapping systems in aid work is nothing new — more complex systems like GIS have been used in both governmental and NGO aid work in the development field for years. But there are limits to these mapping systems: They often take a long time to generate and distribute, which means they are not always up-to-date, nor are they accessible or user-friendly to the general public — especially in the developing world.
More simple user-based mapping technologies may be able to solve some of these problems. Proof of the potential are successful projects like Ushahidi, a text message–based mapping website that was used to monitor post-election violence in Kenya last year, or Al Jazeera's similar "crowdsourced" website, the War on Gaza.
The technology is catching on in the relief sector. Last week Reuters AlertNet hosted a workshop to discuss "how the aid world can use maps to communicate, advocate and plan for disasters" — seeking advice from both aid organizations that have used complex mapping systems for a long time, such as Map Action, and new wiki user-based mappers like Open Street Map and InSTEDD GeoChat.
There are definitely problems with newer mapping systems. One big one is possibly unreliable information. Some websites are going beyond content moderation and developing algorithms to rate their users' integrity based on whether other users have tagged the information as bunk. Others, such as HealthMap, have tried to confront the problem of legitimacy by generating content from diverse sources — NGOs, the media, government and individual users — in the hopes of being able to cross-check information.
But these websites also take time to generate enough content to be useful. And while many people in the developing world have access to cell phones to send input to these websites, few have reliable access to the internet to view the maps.
Problems aside, user-based maps certainly hold appeal. Part of it lies in their ability to empower everyday people to connect and speak out in times of crisis. This technology can be — and already has been — incredibly useful for reporting on conflicts where the media is not allowed. And in the aid world, it offers the possibility of swift action, unhindered by bureaucracy or lack of infrastructure.