[Guest post by Avi Lambert: Avi is passionate about cross-pollinating web thinking in government, the public sector and civil society organizations. His work connects the dots between strategies, tactics, desired end-state behaviors and demographics. www.avilambert.net]

“Locative media utilize a range of devices from GPS systems, and wi-fi networks, to bluetooth enabled cellphones, to creative new networks, community maps or mobile gaming experiences that engage and make visible the particularities of local spaces and place.”

The Wireless Spectrum: Politics, Practices, and Poetics of Mobile Media, p.4

Recent superstorm Sandy, dubbed Frankenstorm, has wreaked unparalleled havoc across the eastern seaboard. The Ushahidi community jumped into the fray immediately, drawing on crowdsourced intelligence and multiple sparks of motivation, launching accessible storm maps that enable the broadcast and collection of key information about the emergency.

However, whereas the broad base of the international crisis mapping community has the capacity to program, design, launch and maintain crisis mapping projects on what may be considered a moment’s notice, there are limitations when looking to work directly with government.

An earthquake registering at 7.7 on the richter scale occurred on Haida Gwaii on October 28th, 2012; and provides a useful example. One of the most prominent stories about the event has been the structural communications failure related to the way emergency management in British Columbia provisioned key safety information on social and traditional media. The title of a story about the situation says it all: “We got lucky, it could have been much worse.”

The jumping off point for our discussion about potential barriers to crisis mapping in emergency management arises from the communications failure in the quake narrative. The fear of spreading misinformation, and sticking to legal and legislative compliance, is what led to a significant gap between the initial seismic event and the first tweet providing vital emergency management information to key stakeholders.

The problem is that the gap in lead time and crisis communications capacity contrasts sharply with the expectations of a modern socially-connected citizenry (1). Yet, what is perhaps more significant is that sticking to compliance is an operational limitation that goes far beyond the organizational challenges within the emergency management sector.

Government ministries at all levels are very afraid of failure. The relationship between reputation and communications is clear. Yet social media paralysis can no longer be an accepted excuse, especially when online initiatives like crisis mapping can provide highly valuable resources for a diversity of key stakeholders.

It is worth recognizing that gradual acceptance within government of social media as a valued tactic for public engagement, awareness and information-sharing represents a socio-cultural norm.

The question here is about challenging norms. To that end, does crisis mapping represent a unique discourse apart from the conversations about why governments should take social media, open data and digital innovation more seriously?

Supporting this line of inquiry, and to situate crisis mapping in emergency management, we can apply a cultural lens. This perspective allows us to ask the following: What are the barriers and opportunities for crisis mapping within government? Would seismic crisis mapping, afford stakeholders the ability to both share information via inbound text-messaging and receive outbound broadcasts from multiple social platforms like twitter? Would this provide a solution to the problem of emergency information lag time?

I do not have a ready answer to these questions. Instead, this may help to confront the norm of gradual acceptance that technologically mediated, innovative and participatory social media should be taken more seriously by those within government.


Crisis mapping is an innovative tactic for public participation. To that end, plotting crisis mapping on the IAP2 public participation spectrum helps to illustrate that crisis mapping should be considered a state-of-the-art tool for public involvement, collaboration and empowerment. And since crisis mapping represents a tactic for highly participatory civic engagement, it should be consistently included as a component of strategies and initiatives to promote the cultural shift towards open government.

Cultural and organizational change at the bureaucratic level requires leadership, policy change and capacity building, among other substantive forces of transformation. In talking about norms, limits and opportunities, one can cultivate greater alliances with those in the public participation, civic engagement and web thinking communities. With this in mind, I look forward to your comments and perspectives.

(1) The recent questions posed by the Red Cross and Ipsos-Read to Canadians about their interest in social media in emergency situations is of value for crisis mappers. Simply put, Canadians that use social media expect and want to be able to gain and share information about emergencies. The CBC story on the issue can be found here. An infographic about the Red Cross campaign can be found here.

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© 2007 International Association of Public Participation
Attribution: International Association of Public Participation