Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Between Micro Mappers and Missing Maps: Digital Humanitarianism and the Politics of Material Participation in Disaster Response

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Between Micro Mappers and Missing Maps: Digital Humanitarianism and the Politics of Material Participation in Disaster Response

Article excerpt


Crisis mapping is a new modality of participatory humanitarian action in which global publics are mobilized to trace digital maps of disaster-stricken sites and to classify, verify, and plot on maps Big Data produced by disaster-affected people. This article untangles the political rationalities behind this emergent form of digital humanitarianism by looking at two platforms that shape the self-organizing crowds in which crisis mapping is grounded: MicroMappers, a microtasking platform for processing messages from disaster zones, and the Missing Maps Project, which traces maps of disaster-prone areas in poor countries. While looking at the increasingly prominent interplay between device-based participation and technologies of advanced liberal governance in humanitarianism, I make two interrelated claims. First, I argue that ICTs do not promote the democratization of disaster response as much as they put at its disposal new tools for establishing order and security in crisis zones by facilitating the transfer of responsibility to humanitarian crowds. Second, I claim that the emergence of the crowd as a new humanitarian actor that serves the dual and potentially incommensurate purposes of resilience and witnessing perpetuates the ambiguities of a humanitarian endeavor whose inherent tensions had grown deeper since it gained its current political prominence.


Crisis mapping, digital humanitarianism, material participation, publics, Big Data, resilience


Since its breakthrough following the Haiti earthquake (2010), crisis mapping has become established as a promising new avenue of both disaster management and humanitarian engagement. Described as a citizen-based and democratized creation of "live," "dynamic," and "interactive" maps that capture the unfolding of everything "from slow-burn crises to sudden-onset disasters" (Meier, 2011, 2012), crisis mapping has been repeatedly applied around the world to digitally trace maps of building, roads, displaced people's camps and medical facilities in the wake of disaster, to aggregate and plot on maps Big Data reports on humanitarian needs, and to assess damages based on aerial imagery. Following its tentative beginnings in the Haiti quake, when thousands of volunteers mobilized to make sense of the huge volume of data that flowed from the country via social media and text messages as well as to trace the most detailed street map of Haiti ever created, crisis mapping has become embedded in a global apparatus that encompasses international agencies, nonprofit tech companies, academic institutions, open source volunteer networks, and business corporations. In the weeks following the earthquake in Nepal in April 2015, for example, more than 4000 volunteers added over 13,199 mile of roads to the OpenStreetMap map of Nepal in an effort coordinated by the local Kathmandu Living Labs; at least nine teams flying unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) operated in the country to produce up-to-date aerial imagery of damages; six million tweets were automatically processed in search of relevant info; and no less than 52 different crisis maps were created by a plethora of governmental, business, and grassroots actors. (1)

The policy discussions of crisis mapping highlight the operational successes it has had in facilitating the delivery of aid in territories transformed by disaster, establishing a better situational awareness for relief teams, helping detect individuals buried under rubble, and connecting helpers and individuals in need from within the community. But the rapid evolution, mainstreaming, and formalization that humanitarian crisis mapping underwent in recent years does not seem to match the still sporadic evidence of its utility (American Red Cross et al., 2014; Morrow et al., 2011). Two recent policy reports, by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, which note the "uncertain impact" (OCHA, 2013: 31) and the paucity of assessments of humanitarian crowdsourcing and Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in disaster response, reinforce the impression that the production of actionable data is not all that crisis mapping has to offer. …

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