Crisis Mapping is an evolving set of technologies and approaches, spanning a variety of disciplines, that is focused on information management, analysis, and visualization for crisis events. Fundamentally Crisis Mapping is focused on responding to humanitarian disasters; these can range from natural disasters like floods and earthquakes to ‘complex’ disasters caused by human conflict. Currently there is no defined field of Crisis Mapping, but the taxonomy of Crisis Mapping proposed by Meier and Zeimke is a good start at outlining the scope and sub-domains of the field. The First International Conference on Crisis Mapping (ICCM 2009) was directed by Patrick Meier and Jen Zeimke and therefore used the taxonomy as guide for the conference. The conference also began with a series of Ignite talks. While sitting through 24 consecutive 5-minutes talks is a bit of an overload, it effectively give everyone a common base for understanding the topics and talents in the group. The roundtable portion of ICCM 2009 was structured to address each of the taxonomy components. These roundtables started with good panels to get the ideas flowing and then opened up for everyone to participate; this created a very fluid and stimulating environment.
Crisis Mapping sits at the intersection of several different topics: humanitarian disasters, sustainable development, information technology, geographic information systems, mobile technology, Web 2.0, etc. Utilizing Crisis Mapping tools during a humanitarian disaster has many potential configurations of technologies and organizational structures. The question for me is how can this problem be optimized? The power of combining geographic information systems and mobile communications is undeniable, but that fact alone does not solve the implementation problem. This is the value of ICCM — put the lead users from the various communities in the same place and see what shakes loose. As a newcomer to the humanitarian field, my focus at ICCM was to sit back and listen. This was my first direct interaction with folks who do this for a living and I wanted to hear about the issues, opportunities, challenges, rewards, and predictions of how the convergence of technologies now described as ‘crisis mapping’ would impact their domains. The range of people in attendance, and who have subsequently become the core of the Crisis Mappers Network, was a variety of UN, NGOs, foundations, USG, software developers/neogeographers, and academics. Each group brought a valuable perspective to the discussions. The only group that I felt was missing was from the cellular telecommunications industry. Ultimately many of the technologies that will be developed for crisis mapping are based on ubiquitous access to mobile voice and data, and having the cellular companies on board during the product development phase would likely prove useful.
Ultimately it was the collection of people and ideas at the ICCM conference that made it a unique experience. In some ways it was similar to the energy of the FOSS4G conferences, but in this case, two factors made it stand out. First, the humanitarian focus meant that inherently the the cost of failure is measured in human lives; something that cannot be understated. Second, this felt like getting in at the ground floor of something great. I’m left with the distinct feeling that in twenty years I’ll look back and say “I was in the room at the first one”.