The conflict in Ukraine is complex, highly fluid, and frequently confusing. Tracking the multiple front lines and hot spots of the war – no mean feat in itself – is made more difficult by propaganda, conflicting reports, social media rumours and deliberate misinformation. Conventional maps can be out of date from the moment they are published, and in any case may be based on questionable or misleading information.
Live online crisis maps, on the other hand, can be updated in real time to reflect rapidly shifting realities on the ground. Some also enable users to see the information which the maps are based on, allowing people to decide for themselves whether the sources are credible.
Crisis mapping platforms draw on numerous sources of data, including social media, news reports, GIS and mobile technologies, to create interactive maps of a given area. Crisis maps often crowdsource information, relying on users to provide, curate and analyse data as well as consuming it. Perhaps the most well known example is Ushahidi, a non-profit organisation which grew out of violence following the 2007 Kenyan presidential elections, and which now develops free and open source software which has been used in conflicts and environmental disasters all over the world.
As the conflict in Ukraine drags out, the potential applications for crisis maps are increasingly being explored. With support from the United Nations Development Programme, Ukrainian NGO Social Boost recently launched a web platform and mobile app that allows users to register damaged infrastructure in the conflict zones. Since early in the conflict journalists have been using an interactive map to track recent and ongoing skirmishes as well as the location of checkpoints and security concerns.
As with all maps, and particularly maps of conflict zones, however, it is important to continue to think critically about what information has been included, what left out, and why. Viewers need to consider both the deliberate bias of creators, and the accidental bias of automated systems. The whole shape of the map can shift based on the inclusion or exclusion of a couple of keywords.
A good example of this is Liveuamap.com. Created by a team of Ukrainian software developers after the ousting of President Yanukovych, the site aggregates data from social media to form a picture of each day’s events in the Ukrainian conflict. This makes Liveuamap a fascinating resource – as long as you remember that it’s not a reflection of what happened in Ukraine, but rather is a reflection of what happened on Twitter as curated by pro-Ukrainian citizens. Interesting, yes; useful, quite possibly; but a comprehensive and objective source of information about what is actually happening on the ground? No.