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Tufts Crisis Mapping Class » Crisis Mapping, Headline » So why a crisis mapping class?

So why a crisis mapping class?

Our second crisis mapping class meets tomorrow and I have spent the weekend reading blog posts, answering emails, and watching the students begin to join the wider crisis mapping community.

I don’t know if every professor has the luxury that Jennifer and I are experiencing through teaching this class, and that is genuine excitement. In their blog posts and questions, it’s clear that each student is excited about the potential of this field for their own reasons; or they are excited about learning how to realize the potential of this field. I don’t know if the professors of Abstract Algebra get the same reception. I’m going to guess probably not.

Although I’m sure you can read through the course documents and get a feel for the course, I want to spend a little bit of time discussing the ideology behind what it is we are trying to do at Tufts University. In a basic sense, we have created a semester-long simulation course for undergraduate students. They are dealing with a crisis scenario (earthquake in Rabat, Morocco) as 5 different NGO/humanitarian organization teams (Morocco Red Crescent, UNICEF, WFP, Catholic Relief Services, and the Moroccan Ministry of Health). The scenario is completely false and at times very unrealistic but the goal is to the students working together and asking the difficult questions in a controlled setting. They will be learning how to use 4 crisis mapping tools (OSM, Google Earth/Maps, Ushahidi, and Frontline SMS) in effort to see the strengths and weaknesses of each for their given situation. Each week will be a series of labs/assignments to get them to start thinking about technology and its implications for humanitarian crisis.

However, in a theoretical sense, we are attempting to further the progress of professionalization within the crisis mapping field. It has become clear to many people that crisis mapping needs to be professionalized, standardized and consolidated. We are a collection of interdisciplinary scholars, practitioners, and volunteers with a large capacity for good as well as destruction. To quote the Standby Task Force, we are also rising “to the challenge of turning the adhoc groups of tech-savy mapping volunteers that emerge around crises into a flexible, trained and prepared network ready to deploy.” The key is going from adhoc to trained and prepared. Really, you can see this in the humanitarian sector as a whole, such as the creation of ALNAP and the Do No Harm Handbook. Although for crisis mapping this has also been a realization years in the making, with both ICCM and  the Standby Task Force, it became instantly clear to many of us during the response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti the role that students can (and should) play in that professionalization.

Students at Tufts University answered the call of volunteer mapping instantly and passionately in January of 2010. In total, we trained over 150 graduate and undergraduate students, at least. Therefore, when Sherman Teichman of the Institute of Global Leadership approached a few Konpa Group Members with the idea of creating a crisis mapping class at Tufts it seemed like a natural fit. The goal is give students not just a tool box, but entire kit of knowledge, experience, and skills to be a part of this field. We want to capture the energy that exists on this campus for crisis mapping, and turn it into something that can be used by the broader live mapping and humanitarian communities.

Although the course focuses on teaching 4 main tools, the aim is to get the students to understand that isn’t the tool that really changed crisis mapping and humanitarian action in January of last year, but it was the network of people around the tool that changed the response. We are hoping to get them to understand that technology is only as powerful as the person using it, and even the most amazing new piece of equipment can be useless or harmful in the wrong hands. Although it is impossible to recreate the entire network of crisis mappers in one class, we are hoping through an emphasis on teamwork, blogging, and guest speakers we can give them a taste of what it is like to be engaged in this community.

We also want to get them excited about the potential of the field and hopefully create a few crisis mapping innovators of our own. As you can see in the revolutions that are happening across North Africa, the youth are truly the drivers of change. Although I am aware that is a simplistic view of the complex situations that are occurring in the Middle East, I only bring it up to emphasize the potential energy that exists within college students across the world. Hopefully, as this class, plus the course at John Carroll Univeristy and  the program Universities for Ushahidi really get underway I think we can hope to see a revolution in crisis mapping.

Starting tomorrow we will begin to publish the first student blog posts. They were asked to answer the questions why did they take this class and what they expect to learn. Please read through them, comment, and ask questions of the students. I can promise you they are interesting to read and will definitely bring a smile to your face. The teams will also start to post their documents and plans online. Again, as practitioners and observers (and fellow students), please feel free to engage us. We love feedback and at the end of the day, I think we can all learn from each other.

Written by

D. Rosalind Sewell (Roz) is a graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, where she is studying Security Studies and Islamic Civilizations. She is the primary teacher for Crisis Mapping: Technology, Resources, and Disaster Relief

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2 Responses to "So why a crisis mapping class?"

  1. Tom Weinandy says:


    It looks like you are doing some great things with this course at Tufts! I will be excited to follow the progress of the class.

    As you may know, John Carroll University in Cleveland also has a class on Crisis Mapping in progress. See the link below for more information. I also suggest that you write a post on the CM*Net website to make others aware of the class and this blog. Keep up the good work!

    @Gmail, Twitter, Skype

    1. Roz says:


      Thanks for your comment. I do know about the course at John Carroll – I didn’t have that most up-to-date link though. (I was still looking at crowd sourcing the syllabus.) I’m excited that there are these initiatives and I cannot wait to see more pop up throughout the field.

      Please keep following us, and definitely keep commenting! I’m looking forward to watching everything progress as well.

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