News / Middle East

Crowdmapping Arab Spring - Next Social Media Breakthrough?

Hina Samnani
VOA Middle East Voices Syria Crowdsourcing
VOA Middle East Voices: Behind the Wall- Syria crowdmap

Six months ago, if someone told you that activists in the Middle East would use social media platforms to revolutionize - literally - the way information is used and disseminated, you probably would have been skeptical.

Six months later, Twitter and Facebook have played a crucial role in providing disenfranchised Arab citizens with a space to pressure regimes to democratize power and increase transparency. The impact of social media in the Arab Spring is undeniable.

But what about the use of crowdmaps? Similar to Twitter and Facebook, crowdmaps rely on user-generated videos, images, and reports; the difference is that information is verified and geo-plotted on online maps, usually by nonprofits or a trusted network of local citizens.

VOA Middle East recently launched a crowdmap project of its own to allow citizens in Arab countries to submit information and footage directly to the website.  Known as Behind the Wall, this project calls for citizens in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain to report and submit videos straight from the streets. But the effect of these websites remains to be seen.

Have crowdmaps played a revolutionary role in documenting Arab protests? Will any of the Arab uprisings be graced with the name “crowdmap revolution,” much like how the initial stages of the Arab Spring were dubbed Twitter and Facebook revolutions?

Technology activists say they’re uncertain, but the way people are using crowdmaps so far is promising.

Jen Ziemke, the Co-founder of the International Network of Crisis Mappers, pointed to successful crowdmaps such as Syria Tracker, which monitors and documents Syrian detentions and protests. Syrian activists launched this map over a month ago and have successfully documented over 800 instances of human rights abuses by the Syrian government, according to Patrick Meier. Meier is the Director of crisis mapping at Ushahidi, a website created in 2008 in order to geo-plot reports of violence in Kenya after the 2007 elections.

Ushahidi has worked with nonprofits, disaster relief organizations and even news organizations to geo-locate disasters on the ground. For example, Al Jazeera and Ushahidi generated a crowdmap of Israeli and Palestinian casualties and the relief response to Gaza during Israel’s 2008 Operation Cast-Lead.

Director of crisis mapping at Ushahidi, Patrick Meier
Director of crisis mapping at Ushahidi, Patrick Meier

Ethan Zuckerman, a Researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Civic Media, said the project was not about “relief purposes” – the typical purpose for crowdmaps – but rather a reportorial project which documented reports of violence on both sides of the conflict.

“What’s interesting now is to see people use [crowdmaps] as more of a journalism tool, as a way of documenting what’s going on as far as protests … to provide a history of events,” he said. “That’s a new development, getting beyond the relief stage of things, and getting it back to the original point of these tools which may have been more journalistic to start with.”

Recently, the U.N. requested an Ushahidi crisis map for Libya, which provides information on violence and uprisings for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.  According to Ziemke, volunteers from the Stand By Task Force are “combing through” Twitter, Facebook and other sites for messages to create a real-time live map.

“Repressive regimes can no longer hide and claim that these events aren’t going on because people can register their stories. They can document abuses, they can say ‘This is my story, my concerns, this is what’s happening to me’,” said Ziemke. “It’s a social media tool that can be used to bear witness or testimony to the crimes that are happening against them. Arab activists use crowdmaps to shed light on abuses of oppressive regimes.”

‘Crowdmapping’ revolution anytime soon?

Probably not. Despite the advantages to crowdmapping, some Arab countries can’t mobilize using only online resources. In areas with low Internet access, online tools almost always reach “a very small elite,” according to Katrin Verclas, the founder of Mobile Active, an organization that uses mobile phones to help eliminate the digital divide.

Arab governments, like Syria, try to block Internet access to thwart attempts at organized protests.  As a result, Arab citizens become reluctant to participate in crowdmapping because they fear being tracked online.

Since activists have a hard time accessing tools that are strictly Internet-based, they are using other ways to get their voices heard.  According to Zuckerman, a “combination of radio and mobile phones” helps create a “vibrant political sphere where people are able to talk about issues in their communities.”

“I think there’s a danger that we can overstate the value of one particular innovative technology,” he noted.  “When you think about creating political spaces in closed societies, you have got to look at every tool that you have available, both low-tech and high-tech.”

Zuckerman said that activists should figure out what level of technology is appropriate for each country, and make sure the website is “linguistically accessible” in order to maximize full participation from citizens.

Despite drawbacks, Ziemke claims that people are still able to get their voices heard.  In Sudan, for example, she’s seen people draw maps by hand to depict the violence in Darfur.

“I don’t think there’s any kind of limit to what people might use these maps for and different organizations are going to have different objectives and categories and different reasons to want to map,” she said. “They’re also going to use other platforms; it might not be that crowdmapping is best suited for all kinds of things.”

Future of crowdmaps

Since Ushahidi’s creation in early 2008, the usage of crowdmaps has increased and expanded to different regions.  People are mapping everything from crises and peace initiatives, and as Ziemke even noted, mapping “where the urban gardens are flourishing in Cleveland.”

But others feel crowdmapping is one tool in the array of social media endeavors out there.  Like Facebook or Twitter, crowdmapping allows users to connect with one another to get their message heard.

“Crowdmapping is just another way to do media and it’s particularly helpful in countries where you don’t have a lot of reporters on the ground,” Zuckerman said.  “But in terms of its significance on policy, you have to think of crowdmapping as being another form of news media.”

Despite criticisms, crowdmapping has had an impact in the Arab Spring.  It’s no surprise that journalists and activists are now paying more attention to crowdmaps and other social media sites to discover new developments in those regions.  The future of crowdmaps still remains to be determined but it’s apparent that this tool has become a new way to utilize the Internet and achieve certain objectives.

With so many resources out there, Ziemke remarks that it’s not the technology that is the ultimate goal; “it’s the new conversations and stories that can be used at that time.”

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