Crisis Mapping in Elections: What Kenya Can Teach Us


BY Ashley Nichole Kolaya

COLETTE MAZZUCELLI, Adjunct Professor at the Center for Global Affairs at the NYU School of Continuing and Professional Studies, contends the lesson we should learn from Kenya’s continuing implementation of crisis-mapping technology is threefold: first, we should not be complacent about the country’s upcoming elections; second, understanding the local context is critical for preventing human rights abuses; and third, technology is no substitute for the value of human networks.

Kicking off the seventh year of the “Conflict, Security and Development” speaker series at NYU Wagner on September 11, 2012, Mazzucelli’s presentation employed a top-down (as well as a grassroots, local community) look at the purpose and use of crisis mapping technology in Kenya, a country mired in historically tumultuous elections.

Crisis mapping is a tool used to collect, visualize, and analyze data for the purpose of preventing human rights abuses where violence is anticipated, in this case, during Kenya’s upcoming elections.  Several challenges arise when questions of cultural context and resource availability are concerned, and Mazzucelli highlighted the significant strides made in the field of crisis mapping to address these challenges.

“We must be clear: technology is no substitute for human networks and community.  It can, however, be a value-add facilitator, a way to enhance the conversation.”

Mazzucelli highlighted two innovators in the field of crisis mapping: FrontlineSMS and DevInfo.  To discuss these technologies, FrontlineSMS CEO Laura Walker Hudson joined the conversation from Kenya via Skype, while DevInfo Aid Effectiveness and Development Technical Advisor John Toner joined us in person.

FrontlineSMS is software that aims to put mobile capabilities in the hands community members through local technology.  In areas where internet capabilities and, sometimes, electricity are scarce, FrontlineSMS uses the lowest common denominator of mobile technology (as Laura puts it, “the oldest Nokia mobile you have in your bottom desk drawer”) to give a voice to those who have been systematically silenced.  Hudson describes three essential functions of FrontlineSMS.  The availability of this technology puts citizens at the heart of the electoral process; it serves as a watchdog over political actors who would abuse the process; and most critically, it facilitates the response to emergencies if and when violations or violence occur.  It’s a way to say to the Kenyan government and citizens, “the world is watching.”

DevInfo takes the work of FrontlineSMS one step further.  It serves as a way to monitor human development by collecting, visualizing, and sharing reported information.  Endorsed by the United Nations, but meant to be accessible to, again, the “lowest common denominator,” John Toner paints a picture of data and statistics that are easily accessible, digestible and sharable to anyone who may want to know or may want others to know.

In concert, Mazzucelli, Hudson and Toner illustrate a situation in Kenya that is both precarious and hopeful.  As countries all over the world embark on new electoral processes, our eyes will be on Kenya and what crisis mapping there can tell us about global efforts to break the “conspiracy of silence” (Zerubavel, 2007) in elections.

Students Question Media’s Role in Humanitarian Crises


Written by Cora Weissbourd

JOURNALISTIC integrity clashed with student idealism at NYU Wagner the other night (Sept. 22, 2011).

The panel discussion, “Humanitarian Emergencies: The Role of the Media,” evolved into a spirited debate around responsibility, technology, and reporting.

Many audience questions focused on how to attract media attention to the “right” causes, and avoiding exploiting crisis victims. For some of the experts on the panel, however, these questions missed the point:

Media outlets have no moral obligation to cover famines instead of Kim Kardashian’s wedding, explained panel moderator Allan Murray. The role of the media is not to “make people eat their vegetables,” he said.

Panelist Cath Turner detailed why some emergencies receive more attention than others: it’s about what people will watch. While viewers are weary of starving children in East Africa, an exploding nuclear reactor in Japan has an appealing “novelty factor.”

As someone who listened to the commentators’ back-and-forth, I agree that the role of the media is not to solve humanitarian emergencies. The value of journalism lies in truth-seeking, in finding stories and reporting facts. I do, however, take issue with the discussion event’s definition of value. To define a valuable story as a story that interests audiences ignores an obvious paradox: audiences learn what is newsworthy and valuable from the media.

In an era of citizen journalism, the media has taken on a new role that further highlights this question of value. Increasingly, non-journalists use technology and the internet to report stories. For the Sept. 22 panel, this raised alarming issues of information overload and authenticity. Professional journalists now must play the role of editor and gatekeeper. They must ask: What is real? What is worth seeing?

Sam Gregory, the director of WITNESS’s programs, offered a bridge between the media representatives and the student idealists. WITNESS’ mission is to use video to open the eyes of the world to human rights violations. Gregory offered suggestions for students interested in combining journalism and activism. For the curious, their tool kits are available here: