Health (crisis) mapping: How to map public health?

Earlier this month, I started working on a paper which will be published in an edited volume on Geographies of Digital Culture. My article will explore how developments in ‘neogeography’ and big data-mapping have influenced the field of public health surveillance. It will deal with questions such as: How can social media content be used in order to monitor and map infectious disease developments? What kind of challenges do public health services face which are based on users’ self-diagnoses and rely on citizens’ willingness to participate? How can researchers encourage users’ involvement in “participatory epidemiology” (Freifeld et al. 2010) and how can these crowdsourced data be combined with other sources from e.g. news websites or social networks? The following draft is an excerpt from my introduction.

In the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, a group of volunteers collaboratively utilised the Ushahidi mapping platform in order to create a cartographic overview of the disaster’s devastating ramifications: They mapped information e.g. regarding the status of (collapsed) buildings, citizens’ medical requirements, water availability and needs, as well as public health reports. Ushaidi, which means ‘testimony’ in Swahili, is an open source project which originated in Kenia and enables users to create crowdsourced maps of e.g. humanitarian crises. In the context of the earthquake in Haiti, the service was used in order to collect and geo-locate information which was crucial for delivering and maintaining effective humanitarian aid programmes (Morrow et al. 2011). Relevant, timely data were derived from sources such as the microblogging platform Twitter and a free text messaging service which citizens were offered in order to communicate their most urgent needs and location. The emerging public map supported aid workers in assessing where help was needed and what kinds of supplies were required. It also provided those affected – as well as their relatives and friends worldwide – with desired updates. More than two years later, Patrick Meier, one of the initiators of the Ushahidi-Haiti project, commented on the platform’s utilisation as well as the project’s reception. While he briefly mentioned the positive feedback which the project received, his blog post also indicates his frustration with its critics:

“Some cite the initiative as the inspiration for their own projects and humanitarian efforts. For others, particularly critics, the project continues to be a major obsession. They strive to identify every possible mistake that volunteers made instead of offering constructive criticism and better practices. In short, they are absolutely masters at smart-talk.” (Meier, 2014)[i]

In particular, his comment elaborates on the dilemma that sensitive, personal information was collected and mapped during the project in a situation of extreme urgency, while explicit consent could rarely be asked. Haitian citizens were in a position in which privacy concerns were outweighed by existential needs, hence gladly turning to offered services. However, what kind of privacy considerations can and should such a crisis mapping service actually take into account?

In his post, Meier presents an activist position which calls for constructive engagement and a ‘proactive’ approach to digital humanitarian technology. His reaction and plea points towards crucial dilemmas and questions of socio-technical risk assessment and methodological insecurities: In light of the immense humanitarian benefits which one may gain by employing innovative methods for crises and disaster mapping, what kind of criteria should be decisive for handling citizens’ data? When assessing their practices in hindsight, how do researchers communicate criticism and ideally facilitate an improvement of digital activist approaches? Such questions are highly relevant to this paper, since it will discuss emerging, digital methods in crisis mapping and public health mapping more specifically. In particular, it will shed light on health mapping projects involving multiple digital data sources and volunteer contributions, hence benefiting from and depending on citizens’ willingness and capacity to participate effectively.

Digital tools for mapping crises – in particular health crises, such as the outbreak of cholera after the 2010 Haiti earthquake – have received increased attention during the last years (see e.g. Soden & Palen 2014; Ziemke 2012; Meier 2012). After disasters such as the Haiti earthquake, social networking sites, blogging platforms and other online platforms have shown to be insightful sources for retrieving data indicating the health status of individuals (Chunara et al. 2012). Monitoring and harnessing such sources can hence facilitate targeted aid and interventions. At the same time, similar approaches are not merely initiated and maintained in moments of crisis. In addition to projects founded in reaction to (health) crises, one could also witness the emergence of more long-term efforts in mapping public health developments: Particularly in the field of public health surveillance, dedicated to monitoring the spreading of infectious diseases, new approaches to collecting and mapping digital health data emerged.

For my paper, I am particularly interested in health mapping projects which aim at involving citizens in the data collection process and combine these crowdsourced data with big data from other online sources. Currently, I am looking into and – the websites as well as corresponding apps – but I would be glad to hear more about (maybe less well-known) projects.



[i] Originally, the comment was published two years after the earthquake on, but this original version is not available anymore.

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