News & Analysis war_reporter-Christian_Frei_Switzerland

Published on September 25th, 2012 | by EJC


Mappers And The Media: Working Together?

Crisis mappers increasingly play a key role during crises and disasters by mapping event data or creating maps where none existed before. Frequently used by first responders, humanitarian and aid organisations, these maps also have great potential value for journalists. Yet it seems that interaction between the media and mapping communities has been fairly limited, with missed opportunities for both.

Covering crises and disasters 

Under normal circumstances, journalists are among the first to arrive at the scene, however, in the volatile circumstances of a major crisis or disaster, access can be impeded or blocked for various reasons. In the immediate aftermath of a disaster there is a huge public demand for information which makes delays highly frustrating for journalists. Volunteer mapping networks, however, can work remotely and are able to begin working almost immediately, or as soon as they are requested to do so. Journalists with connections in these networks could potentially have a map of possible leads and a better understanding of the overall situation before they have even arrived at the scene.

The ICFJ’s Disaster and Crisis Coverage handbook advises journalists covering such events to

Know the exact locations of potential terrorist targets, including government and military buildings and places where large groups gather. Map all hospitals and emergency clinics. Obtain maps and schematics of government buildings, transportation hubs, and any locations where hazardous materials are used.

The handbook also recommends media outlets to “get up-to-date local maps to keep in the newsroom” but does not mention volunteer crisis maps, which in some cases, such as the 2009 Haiti earthquake, are the most accurate maps available. Also, while it is undoubtedly useful for journalists to create their own maps, in the immediate aftermath of a disaster they may be unable to recognise anything from ground-level, and are probably too busy reporting. In these situations, it would therefore be more efficient to use an existing maps, which they can contribute to if time constraints allow.


Crisis maps could be a source of possible leads because hotspots of activity quickly become apparent, potentially saving journalists’ time and resources. Maps are also a very useful device for explaining an ongoing disaster to audiences unfamiliar with the affected area or country and can help communicate the importance of relationships between different places, for example proximity to an international border, or distance from the capital city. In addition to being regularly up-dated, accurate and verified by experts, crisis maps are free and can be embedded online or reproduced in print or on television.

Finally, crisis maps can assist journalists with follow-up stories, an important part of responsible journalism, for as long as mappers continue to monitor and map events. Many maps include a timeline and some, such as The Guardian’s Syria Deaths Map, include features for play-back of events.

Journalists as Mappers

Speaking to the European Journalism Centre after the recent PICNIC media festival, members of the Standby Task Force (SBTF) and Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) talked about ways that journalists can contribute. Journalists already have many of the skills needed for crisis mapping, said Helena Puig Larrauri of the SBTF, particularly when it comes to verification and media monitoring. Journalists volunteering with the group typically work in these areas and anyone wanting to be involved is encouraged to apply. Journalists can also help to identify relevant voices in the noise, said Anahi Ayala Iacucci, also of the SBTF, because “its a lot of information, not always comprehensible, not always relevant, not always precise or accurate…”

There is definitely a huge role, making crowdsourced information relevant and actionable and usable, that’s the role that journalists have. – Anahi Ayala Iacucci

Journalists on the ground can also help by reporting what they see, and, just as importantly, what they do not see. They can also provide concrete information, said HOT member Harry Wood, such as place names, exact geographical coordinates and fresh, high-resolution imagery.

Anahi Ayala Iacucci (Internews/WorldBank), Helena Puig Larrauri (Standby Task Force) and Harry Wood (Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team).

Working Together

For the media and volunteer crisis mappers, the benefit of working together are numerous, there has not been much sustained coordination between two groups, but there have been some successful joint-projects, some examples are listed below:

Photo: Christian Frei Switzerland

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