Geo-mapping for human rights

Conversation Details

Dates of conversation: 
Wednesday, October 28, 2009 to Tuesday, November 3, 2009
Conversation type: 
Type of tactical goal: 

Summary available

This New Tactics dialogue titled “Geo-mapping for Human Rights” focused on the role of spatial mapping tools in working to further human rights goals. With the rise of technology, mapping tools become not only more available to practitioners that may previously have shied away from using technology, but maps also offer new possibilities for advocacy, promoting transparency around human rights issues, tracking impact of human rights efforts, and engaging the community in local issues.

Geo-mapping is a rapidly developing tool in the human rights community, and this dialogue acted as a  platform for practitioners to share ideas, advice, and resources regarding its use. Dialogue participants provided case studies from their own work and work they have encountered, shared mapping tools for beginners as well as experienced cartographers, and shared ideas on how mapping can be used in advocacy, sharing critical information and community engagement.

What Can a Map Be Used For?

  • Sharing and Representation of Stories – Maps can be used to represent different stories of people living in conflict zones or areas hit by natural disasters. By sharing their stories, the community not only documents the events, but also explains progress and setbacks. By mapping narratives spatially, a conflict or a disaster situation is situated within its context, allowing practitioners and the community to respond more effectively. For example, The World Is Witness project collects stories of people affected by the genocide around the world and portrays them geo-spatially.
  • Sharing Critical Information – Various types of maps can be used to report and share critical information at times of conflict or disaster. Maps can aid in delivering more effective relief, identifying frequent sources of violence. Ushahidi developed a crisis mapping tool, that is an open platform. In the context of natural disaster, Sahana offers a tool suited for disaster relief mapping.
  • Mapping Long-term Impact – In order to document progress on human rights issues, the same map can be generated on a regular basis for comparison, or using color-coding for different years, one map provides a powerful visual representation of the spatial dimension of impact over time. For example, ILGA-Europe maps LGB rights in Europe. Their Rainbow Europe map depicts various legal advances made by the different countries. Another example is tracking the harmful environmental impact on communities using geo-mapping.
  • Combining Existing Data to Create Impact – Information on human rights issues can be combined with existing maps or satellite images and serve as a powerful basis for advocacy and transparency. In the case of Colombia, a map was created that combined data on the frequency of human rights violations caused by military officials with the locations of US government funding for military operations. The map portrayed the links between US military funding and local human rights violations in Colombia, and thus challenged the US government's claim that the funding did not have any adverse effects in Colombia.
  • Empowering Local Communities – Organizing the community to create their own map displaying their stories, and displaying the map in a place that is significant to the community acts to reclaim histories, recover losses, and promote social justice. New Tactics' tactical notebook titled: The Power of Place: How historic sites can engage citizens in human rights issues documents a powerful story of District Six Museum in South Africa that utilized a community-created map.

Community Engagement
Communities can be engaged and mobilized through “participatory mapping.” In a broad sense, participatory mapping refers to maps that have been created by the community. One way of engaging the community is to use existing maps and add elements that the community finds useful, as shown in this example from Samoa. Oftentimes, government maps contain biases or contain too much technical information that the community does not necessarily find useful. By building on such maps, the community can create its own mapping resources tracking specific issues in several areas at once and over time. Through this experience, communities gain ownership over the issues at hand, and have a chance to acknowledge their own experiences of the situation as well as utilize their knowledge of the local area.

Given the availability of free mapping tools online and the possibility of engaging the community in re-defining already existing maps, geo-mapping constitutes a powerful tool that can be used for a wide range of human rights issues, both at the local and global scale. For example, local youth centers could use participatory mapping in order to identify safe and unsafe areas in their neighborhood, and subsequently engage youth in working on potential solutions. On a national scale, non-profit organizations could create a common map online and map the impact of new law. Worldwide, maps could be to collect data on the routes “taken” by human trafficking victims to potentially identify locations in which the perpetrators may reside.

Challenges and Lessons Learned

  • Mapping Data as Reliable Evidence – It has at times been difficult to transfer mapping data into reliable evidence. First of all, not all mapping tools detect changes that occur overtime, and maps thus gradually lose some of their validity. Second, as discussed in this post satellite imagery is an inherently visual medium, and while it can be used for large scale mapping of the impact of human rights violations, it can rarely detect and identify the perpetrators.
  • Estimating Implications of Mapping Data – Maps often act as the basis for estimating population and environmental data. However, such estimates often assume equal distribution of the subject we are measuring. An interesting example about the potential difficulty of inferring the number of IDPs from the number of refugee camps can be found here.
  • Protecting the Data – Maps offer many different outlets for sharing critical information. However, at times that information can be misused and do harm. Practitioners in the dialogue emphasized that those working on maps should pay special attention to who gains access to such maps and ensure that those persons cannot use the data in malicious ways. For example, maps containing data on human rights activists in Iran run the risk of being used to find and capture those activists,  or maps containing information on refugee camps could be used by militias to target populations.  
  • Reviewing data – Especially in the case of maps that are open to all, the accuracy of data ought to be periodically reviewed or the mapping system should contain an approval system.

Free Mapping Resources and Image Sources

Resources on Advocacy and the Use of Technology:

Conversation Leaders

PatrickMeier's picture
Patrick Meier
DigiActive's picture
Lars Bromley
Science and Human Rights Program, AAAS
ckreutz's picture
Christian Kreutz
SandraCart's picture
Sandra Sudhoff
mifan's picture
Mifan Careem
mgraham's picture
Michael Graham
World is Witness
y_rebois's picture
Yann Rebois
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Closed topic Geo-mapping for human rights (Page: 1, 2, 3) 112
by thomsonjeff123
Thu, 06/28/2012 - 4:18pm