Friday, May 9, 2008

Few and Far Between

My lack in posts has partly been due to a crazy week after graduating college, spending time at home with my family in Rhode Island and preparing for my three week trip to Europe.

With that said, I leave for Europe on Sunday and will unfortunately not be able to give much attention to my blog for the time being.

It's my first time abroad so I'm very excited and will be sure to share a little of my experiences here.

I'll be back in June.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Mapping Genocide: Google Earth and Darfur

*Final Paper

Chances are you’ve never heard of Furawiya—a village of 13,000 in northern Sudan primarily made of farmers. The people who lived in this thriving community depended on livestock as disposable income and had shops and open markets. Now, it is described by John Heffernan from Physicians for Human Rights as a “virtual ghost town” in the online video Lives Destroyed: A Refugee's Story.

The village was demolished in January 2004 by the Janjaweed militia in a conflict that has raged since 2003 and continues today. Furawiya is one of the many villages that have been victim to the violence and destruction plaguing the Darfur region. Now between 8,000 and 10,000 people from Furawiya are living in refugee camps along the border of neighboring Chad.

Furawiya’s story can be found on the PHR Web site, but it is also part of a bigger project exploring how new media can play an active role in spreading education and awareness about
human rights issues.

While the conflict in Sudan seems worlds away for most Americans, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) and Google Earth have collaborated on an innovative project to place these human rights violations in front of everyone’s eyes.

In April 2007, the two launched the Crisis in Darfur Map on Google Earth—a virtual map of the Earth that uses high-resolution satellite imagery to view different parts of the world. Layered with data and multimedia, the map includes testimonies, videos such as the story of Furawiya and images of the different damaged and destroyed villages as well as images of refugees and internally displaced people, providing an interactive experience for others to learn about the crisis.

The project is the brainchild of Michael Graham who was an intern at the USHMM when he proposed it. He had wondered how mapping technology could be used to shed light on issues such as Darfur even before Google Earth’s launch in 2005. Now, as coordinator of the museum’s Genocide Prevention Mapping Initiative, he has seen his idea come to fruition.

“I had been having ideas along that before Google Earth,” he said. “Then Google Earth came out officially while I was at the Museum and it was sort of an ‘A-ha!’ moment.”

It was then that a team of volunteers known as Bright Earth was established and explored different mapping tools while collecting data on Darfur from destroyed villages to humanitarian access and refugee camps. The team worked with United Nations agencies, the U.S. Department of State and numerous non-governmental organizations like Amnesty International, a human rights organization that provided testimonies of the atrocities in Darfur. However, the team lacked the high-resolution imagery to present the data and thus the collaboration with Google Earth began, with Google agreeing to make obtaining the necessary imagery a top priority.

“We prioritized the acquisition of high-resolution imagery which is important in being able to see what is going on in the region,” said Kate Hurowitz, a spokeswoman for Google. “The ability to provide that was a big contribution to the effort.”

Combining the mass of data collected with the high-resolution imagery created a whole new use of multimedia for human rights. In addition, Google also agreed to make the Darfur layer on Google Earth as default content, making outreach even easier.

“[Darfur] was so important and we felt strongly that people needed to see what the Museum was offering,” said Hurowitz.

Since Google Earth’s launch in 2005, there have been 350 million unique downloads, according to Hurowitz, clearly making it a powerful tool with the potential to make an impact.

The use of multimedia has greatly affected the way people obtain information around the world, particularly in news coverage. As Graham noted that newspapers give the general big picture with text and photos, people have become desensitized to issues such as Darfur. The point of the museum’s Mapping Initiative is to “re-sensitize” people to it.

“Visual media can be much more effective,” he said. “For me, Google Earth is perfect as a presentation tool to see with your own eyes what is happening and showing people what that looks like. An 80 page report may be well researched and comprehensive but it’s easier to dismiss.”

Tribal clashes between “non-Arab black African” Muslims and “Arab black African” Muslims—known as the Janjaweed—peaked in 2003 after decades of drought, oppression and small scale conflicts in Darfur, according to the Save Darfur Coalition. In order to oppress the rebel groups formed by the “non-Arabs,” president Omar al-Bashir responded by increasing arms and support for the Janjaweed who have wiped out entire villages, destroyed food and water supplies and systematically murdered, tortured and raped hundreds of thousands of Darfuris.

After nearly five years of genocide in Darfur, more than 90,000 people are believed to have been killed by the conflict, about 200,000 are believed to have died from conflict-related causes and 2.3 million have been internally displaced, according to a 2008 report issued by Amnesty International.

In February, violent attacks resurfaced leaving thousands to flee to Chad and many others dead. As the crisis continues, it has grown more important for people to become aware and motivated to take action.

Some of the stories are horrifying,” said Selena Brewer, a Darfur researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW). Brewer was in Darfur in 2004 working for another organization, noting that the last couple of months before her departure in 2005, there was massive violence. As the years have gone by, people have turned a deaf ear to the situation. “People are treating it as business as usual and it’s really not,” she said.

What have left an impression on Brewer are the people of Darfur. Along with smiling faces, she commented on their charm and sense of humor despite the atrocities they have witnessed. But one incident has made a big impact on her.

Right before Christmas in 2004, there was a series of attacks leaving 30,000 displaced. Children had seen their families killed in front of them, women were raped. Brewer, accustomed to seeing children laughing and playing in the camps, was shocked by the stark contrast of the newly arrived displaced villagers.

“They had completely hollowed eyes and were desecrated from exhaustion,” she said. “These groups were silent. To see a whole community in that state is hard to describe.”

Online mapping tools such as Google Earth have made it possible for people to bear witness to stories like these and have shown the importance of satellite imagery. Mainly used by the government, geospatial technology is relatively new in the public realm.

“Behind [Google Earth] is the underpinning of geospatial information systems (GIS),” said Frank Taylor, an entrepreneur who writes the Google Earth Blog, which is not affiliated with the company. “It’s been around for a long time and is well established. It’s been used by the government but not well known by the general public.”

Geospatial technology refers to the different tools such as GIS, satellite images and Global Positioning Systems (GPS) that are used to map and analyze specific locations of the earth. The federal government has used it for everything from managing forests to determining voting districts, according to the Geospatial Information & Technology Association.

Google Earth has combined satellite imagery with GIS, which is any system used for capturing, storing, analyzing and managing data for mapping and has opened this type of technology to the general public.

It has evolved for public use from mapping services such as MapQuest to more complex visualizations like Google Earth. While people are able to direct themselves from point A to point B or hone in on their house using satellite imagery, geospatial information can make a far more compelling argument when it comes to human rights violations.

“Google Maps really shook up online mapping because it was interactive,” said Taylor. “Google Earth had a profound influence on how important it is to zoom in with satellites.”

Other factors making Google Earth a powerful tool is its ease of use. Along with satellite images, all of the information is found in one area and the user is able to customize the layer as they see fit. The interactivity creates a whole new level of learning, providing a different experience from reading an article in the mainstream media.

Beyond raising awareness, the bigger challenge is motivating people to take action. While there is no way to monitor how many people have been influenced by the map to join an advocacy group, lobby congress or donate money, a case study report on the project noted that “more than 100,000 have visited the “What Can I Do?” page on the museum’s site to find out how they can help.” The page provides a variety of ways to take a stand including contacting the media to tell them there is a lack of coverage on the issue and communicating with decision-makers such as the U.S. government and the United Nations about the need for humanitarian assistance.

While crediting the Crisis in Darfur Map as a great awareness tool, Joshua Goldstein, a graduate research assistant at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School noted that the obvious pushback to a project like this is that “at the end of the day you’re not saving lives.” Although awareness about Darfur is critical, Goldstein makes the point that awareness that leads to activism is even more crucial.

Despite declaring the conflict in Sudan as genocide in 2005, President Bush has been criticized for being too lax in his peacekeeping efforts. Motivating the American people is the key to getting the U.S. to act, said Goldstein.

“For America to play a role, the public needs to be motivated. Maybe we have these incredibly fancy tools,” he said, referring to Google Earth, “but maybe there’s a limit to what people can feel. How do you motivate someone from looking at a map to contribute to change?”

The potential of Web mapping lies in developing better ways for people to communicate. Ushahidi, a site using mapping technology to report acts of violence during the post-election times in Kenya, is a great example of what mapping can do, said Goldstein. The site relies on citizens to report what they see as it is happening using SMS, or text messaging, and e-mail reports. He suggested that the real difference will be when the technology can be used for emergency and early warning alerts.

“We’re at a really interesting point where we can see all of these experiments,” he said. “It’s a pretty fascinating space but there’s a lot of room for improvement.”

Rallying for change is a necessity for human rights violations such as Darfur, but raising awareness is also a critical factor in the United States. According to Be a Witness, a campaign of the American Progress Action Fund and the Genocide Intervention Fund examining media coverage of the crisis in Darfur, the mainstream media are not doing their job. In analyzing broadcast news coverage in 2004, Be a Witness found “the ABC, CBS, and NBC network nightly newscasts aired a total of only 26 minutes on genocide and fighting in Sudan. ABC devoted 18 minutes to Darfur coverage, NBC five and CBS only three. By contrast, Martha Stewart's woes received 130 minutes of nightly news coverage. Stated differently, only about 1 in every 950 minutes of news coverage in 2004 covered the genocide in Sudan.

In 2005, news coverage revolved around the Michael Jackson scandal, the infamous Runaway Bride and the relationship between Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes.

Although Brewer acknowledges that coverage has been sparse given the intensity of the issue, she is at the same time surprised that Darfur has remained a topic in the news for so long.

“It has stayed to some extent in the news for five years,” she said, noting that the crisis in the Congo has barely managed to get coverage. For her that is a testament to why the visual aspects of mapping projects like the museum’s is so important. The use of high-resolution satellite imagery has provided a window into parts of the world that people had little access to before, thus motivating people to take action.

“It gives many more people ownership of Darfur,” said Brewer. “There are stories of so many groups working on Darfur, putting their heart and soul into activism and they haven’t even been to Darfur. But they feel it as personally as I do. That ownership is incredible.”

Another project that intends to spark people into action using satellite imagery is Amnesty International’s Eyes on Darfur Web site. Like the Crisis in Darfur Map, Eyes on Darfur incorporates mapping technology and multimedia, including videos, testimonies and pictures, to create a compelling presentation.

The site launched in June 2007, shortly after the Crisis in Darfur project and along with exposing the genocide, it also helps monitor villages at risk. Information on monitored villages is provided on the site where people can then email, print or fax a letter to President Bashir.

Inspired by Amnesty International’s previous use of mapping technology to expose the Zimbabwean government’s forced eviction campaign, the success in Zimbabwe led to the realization that this type of technology could be applied to Darfur.

"Darfur was always something we aspired to use this technology for,” said Blätter.

To make the project a success, Amnesty International teamed up with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which helped collect the satellite imagery, a tedious and time consuming task, according to Lars Bromley, a project director at AAAS who worked on Eyes on Darfur. Bromley also served on the advisory board for the USHMM’s Google Earth project.

Because the Sudan region has so many remote villages, it was hard for Bromley and his team to match coordinates to images especially to villages that had been destroyed.

“The challenge of finding the coordinates of a town is significant,” said Bromley. “You come up with coordinates for an actual town and then see what images are available for those coordinates but it’s generally a different process without a pre-existing image of what a village looked like beforehand. It’s a meticulous process of identifying two images and changes.”

Despite the challenge, the site has made an important impact. Blätter noted it has gone viral with 85,000 viewers per day averaging six and a half minutes per visit, which is a big deal in what she refers to as the “techie-world.”

The outreach ability of satellite imagery has also greatly affected the Sudanese tactics in Darfur. Blätter said that until the recent bombings in February, scorched earth attacks, which were common in the beginning of the conflict, have been rare due to the powerful evidence these images have provided.

They recognize we intend to make it harder for violence to take place,” she said.

Together, both Eyes on Darfur and the Crisis in Darfur Map have been instrumental in raising awareness and in motivating people to take action. The USHMM has also realized the use of this technology to spread awareness about the genocide of World War II, using Google Earth to create another layer known as Mapping the Holocaust. Along with mapping key sites of the Holocaust, the museum’s Holocaust Encyclopedia provides historical content to further educate people in an interactive way.

Although the Genocide Mapping Initiative has been successful, some at the museum needed a little convincing that Google Earth was a good endeavor for the Museum.

“Some disagreed about whether it was worth pursuing,” said David Klevan, education manager for Technology and Distance Learning Initiatives at the museum. “Was it the best way to use the museum’s resources? Eventually, the project got support with the understanding that it would draw a much larger audience to the museum.”

That’s exactly what happened once the layer launched in Google Earth. The museum’s Web site has experienced a significant spike in web traffic. The case study referenced earlier also reported, “Two months after the launch, the museum's Web site is still receiving 50 percent more traffic than before. The project has significantly expanded the global reach of the site -- the percentage of the visitors from outside the U.S has jumped from 25 percent to 46 percent over the past year. The number of hits from Sudan alone increased more than tenfold.”

This is good news for Klevan,who has been an influential part in integrating multimedia on the museum’s Web site to make it more interactive. The site now features online exhibitions of a lot of the displays guests will find in the actual museum alongside exclusive online presentations. Visitors to the site will find a plethora of pictures, documents, videos of survivor testimony and informative animated maps.

“The biggest challenge is how to make the site a place where people come and do things and engage in activity,” said Klevan, who acknowledged that the explosion of multimedia is still new for everyone.

Despite the new territory, the museum is embracing multimedia to the fullest extent by launching its newest project on April 4 with Google Earth known as World Is Witness, a “geoblog” that documents and maps genocide and related crimes against humanity. Blog posts found on the World Is Witness site appear in a layer on Google Earth while images of Google Earth are available on the site, providing multiple platforms for people to explore.

The innovation behind these projects has the potential to be instrumental in preventing future human rights violations through early warning systems. The world was slow in reacting to the extermination of six million Jews during World War II and the massacre of an estimated 800,000 Rwandans in only 100 days in 1994.

As thousands of Darfuris continue to live in refugee camps fearing for their lives, Brewer, who continues to raise advocacy about the crisis in Darfur at Human Rights Watch, has seen the meager conditions they live in. With little food and water, it is unsafe for the men to leave the camp, as they will be killed by the Janjaweed militia. Instead, women and children are sent to retrieve what they can, often facing the threat of rape and abuse.

Brewer notes that the biggest factor to contributing to change is staying informed.

“[Genocide] is so hard for people to believe,” she said. “Even I hear stories from Darfur and I’m staggered.”