Expert Interview: Uses and Challenges of Crisismapping in Sudan
Helena Puig Larrauri is a peacebuilding practitioner, focusing on the intersection of technology, peacebuilding and conflict prevention. She is a freelance consultant, working with non-governmental organizations and United Nations in conflict and post-conflict countries including Sudan, Libya, Cyprus, Zimbabwe, Nepal, Kyrgyzstan and Iraq. Helena is also a co-founder of the Standby Task Force , an online volunteer technical community that is active in crisismapping, comprised of more than 800 volunteers front around the globe.
In this interview, Helena speaks to Sawtna about the lessons crisis mappers are learning in Sudan, the challenges they are facing and the technical skills and resources required to use the technology.
Sawtna: You have worked in Sudan for a few years and have seen the way crisis mapping has been adopted by Sudanese citizens from its very first uses during the national elections of early 2010 to subsequent uses during the January 30, 2011 protests and then again, the protests of the summer of 2012 (#SudanRevolts) and most recently during the humanitarian crisis following the floods of August 2013. Can you tell us what lessons are we learning in Sudan from these experiences, what mistakes do we keep doing that make it hard to benefit from fully utilizing the power of the data collected from crisis maps?
Helena: The main lesson that people are learning, looking at the evolution from the Sudan Vote Monitor, during the 2010 elections to crisis map set up for Nafeer, during the floods of August 2013 is an increase in focus for what the data was being collected for; and what it would be used for.
With the elections, there was a lot of focus on collecting data and with voting and electoral fraud, but there wasn’t a clear action plan as to what would happen with that data afterwards. I think with every iteration people are getting better at the things they really need to focus on, and what happens with the data afterwards.
In terms of mistakes that I’ve seen, I think there are a few smaller ones, but the main one is really a miscalculation on the resources that are needed to process data. There is a lot of focus of resources and of thinking and of time on collecting data, but I think that people using crisis maps in Sudan don’t fully budget for the amount of time and the amount of resources that are needed to verify data, to clean it and to then analyze it. That’s not something particular to Sudan, it’s something crisis mappers in other countries have a problem with as well.
Sawtna: What are the main challenges for a country like Sudan when it comes to employing crisis mapping to these different events or scenario (elections, protests and humanitarian crisis)?
Helena: There is one challenge that is common to all of these scenarios (elections, protests and humanitarian crisis); and that challenge is the challenge of connectivity. As you know, internet connectivity in Sudan is not widespread across the country. It’s pretty concentrated in the capital. And mobile phone connectivity is pretty good, but it can be patchy. Certainly connectivity with data through a phone is very patchy.
The main problem is that a crisis map is online, typically, and Sudanese crisis mappers need to find ways to get data from populations that don’t have access to the internet. Whether it is through mobile phones or through the creative use of radio or word of mouth.
These are very different events in terms of their political context. It is easier to have a crisis map for a humanitarian crisis, because there is a common understanding that if you’re mapping needs, it’s something that everyone agrees on. There’s no doubt that people are in need. Even if certain political elements would prefer not to make that public, it’s an objective fact–people are in need.
When it comes to elections it gets a little bit more difficult, because although there is a common understanding that election monitoring is a good idea…perhaps not everyone would want the outcome of election monitoring to be quite so public.
When it comes to protests it becomes even harder, because there are certainly a lot of elements in the Sudanese political scene that do not want the truth about what is happening in Sudan to be public, and visible online.
The challenge that is different with these three scenarios, is the challenge of knowing whether a map will be blocked. Or whether the means of communicating with a map will be blocked, or whether it will be hacked in some way. For protests, that is a very strong challenge. For humanitarian crisis that is not really a challenge.
Sawtna: In Sudan it seems that every time we’ve so far used crisis mapping that’s generated by citizen efforts has been during an emergency of sorts. What would you say is a basic checklist for those launching such efforts, under time restrictions and resource restrictions?
Helena: There are three top things that people need to be thinking about in a crisis situation:
- The first one is: what will this data be used for? Who is your client? Who is your audience? And what are they going to do with this data? Are you trying to inform the media? Are you trying to help volunteers who are distributing things for basic needs? Are you trying to provide information to the National Electoral Commission? What’s the aim of the map? That has to be determined very quickly. It should be the focus of the map, because you are in a crisis situation and resources are limited; so that you really focus your efforts on getting the information that is needed for that audience.
- The second thing: would be, that in a crisis situation there is a tendency to jump to the crisis mapping tool that most people know, which in Sudan is, Ushahidi, which is an online mapping tool. And that might not be the best technical solution. So I would say, despite the time pressure spend a moment thinking about what is the best technical solution for what you are trying to do.
- Thirdly: in a crisis situation, in particular, there is a tendency to think very short-term. So lot’s of volunteers are willing to work on the crisis map at the very beginning. But maybe a week or a week and half down the road you’ve lost all the people who were working on the crisis map. If you’re being offered volunteers who want to work on the crisis map, try to stagger those resources. Don’t put them all at the beginning. Try to make sure that a week or a week and half from now you will still have people to run the crisis map.
There have been uses of crisis maps outside of emergency situations. There’s a project called Madrasatna, which is a non-emergency crisis map that is mapping schools in Sudan.
Sawtna: One thing you mentioned was that people tend to automatically think about Ushahidi, but it might not be the best option. Are you implying that there are now other options, similar to Ushahidi and probably easier to use?
Helena: There are definitely other options. It’s not that they are easier to use in all circumstances, its that for certain types of jobs, they might do the job better. And they are just as easy to use as Ushahidi. For example, Google’s Crisis Map is a free online resource. It’s more useful for certain kinds of information. People might want to look at the Elva platform and Caress Geo [who recently changed their name to First Mile Geo], which is another mapping tool. There is number of other tools, but I would say these are your top three to check as well as Ushahidi.
Sawtna: What guidance can you give citizens and civil society groups who want to use crowd sourcing or crisis mapping for other purposes (i.e., tracking youth unemployment or reporting water shortages in their neighborhoods or sexual harassment against women). What kind of skills does using this technology require? What technical support is available for free out there?
Helena: All of the tools that I’ve just mentioned, can be used by someone who is comfortable on a computer, who is comfortable on the internet, but who is not a coder or programmer. You have to be computer literate and maybe know how to use an excel spreadsheet.
However, if you want to use one of those tools and customize it to meet exactly what you want to do, so exactly the type of categories of data or something a little bit more advanced, then you need to have programming and coding skills. You can use a standard template of Ushahidi, without any technical skills. But if you want to customize it you’ll need some coding skills.
Some of these tools require you to have server space, and to be able to install a piece of free software on a server. So you have to get the server space and install the tool. If you are not able to do that you then have to use something that is hosted on the cloud or hosted on the internet. For example, Ushahidi and some of the other tools I mentioned also offer that option for free.
“If you’re thinking about crisis mapping, 10 percent of your effort and your human resources should be devoted to the technology and to the data processing, and 90 percent of your effort should be devoted to community organizing. And to talking to people about sharing their stories and understanding what they need to share.”
Sawtna: The real work behind crisis mapping is that done on the ground with people and the relevant communities. Can you elaborate on that?
Helena: Absolutely, the real work behind crisis mapping is identifying what the needs for data are and then finding that data, and collecting it in a way that is sensitive to the stories that communities want to tell. If you’re thinking about crisis mapping, 10 percent of your effort and your human resources should be devoted to the technology and to the data processing, and 90 percent of your effort should be devoted to community organizing. And to talking to people about sharing their stories and understanding what they need to share.
Sawtna: In Sudan, has this been a challenge? Are we learning, are we getting this?
Helena: In Sudan, the groups that are doing crisis mapping, initially were pretty focused on the technical stuff. There was a divide between the people who are really involved in organizing and the people who are really involved in the technical side. My sense is that groups like Madrasatna are bridging this divide–that they have both. I think that Sudanese crisis mappers are getting there.