• Crisis Mapper: Dr. Patrick Meier
    Patrick Meier is a crisis mapper.

    Photograph by Kris Krüg

    By Alyssa Samson

    Tuesday, July 10, 2012

    Dr. Patrick Meier is a crisis mapper and a 2012 Emerging Explorer. Using social media, texting, and other technologies, Patrick is able to create real-time maps that help local disaster relief. Crisis maps help direct aid specifically to people or organizations requesting help.

    EARLY WORK

    Patrick was interested in crisis mapping before he even knew what crisis mapping was.

    “I remember during the First Gulf War, asking my father to buy me this big paper map of the Middle East. I was watching CNN and I was trying to draw the crisis and what was happening.”
     
    After taking computer classes in high school and rediscovering his mapping abilities as a student at Harvard University, Patrick began getting extremely involved in mapping crisis areas.

    Ultimately, he asked: “How do you take these new technologies, like Google Earth and Google Maps, and apply them in a humanitarian context to improve humanitarian response?”

    Become a crisis mapper.

    MOST EXCITING PART OF YOUR WORK

    “For me, it’s really about finding ways to help people help themselves. At the end of the day, most of the survivals that happen after a disaster are thanks to local interventions, not the search-and-rescue team from Iceland that flies in 48 or 72 hours later to pull somebody out of the rubble.”

    MOST DEMANDING PART OF YOUR WORK

    “One of the hardest things that I have had to do is the Haiti crisis map after the earthquake. Going through all that content was psychologically very difficult. I think it’s called secondary post-traumatic stress disorder. I definitely had that. I had a lack of sleep and no food, looking at these messages coming in from snowy Boston, where everything is fine, and not being able to have closure [with the victims in Haiti].”

    HOW DO YOU DEFINE GEOGRAPHY?

    Patrick admits that although he never actually took a geography course, he managed to stumble into the field. For him, neogeography, or “new geography,” is about “using free and open-source technologies to allow people to create their own maps.”

    “People can create their own maps. There are multiple perspectives, multiple narratives that sometimes conflict and overlap, but it’s about telling your own story, where you can use maps to tell a particular story.”

    GEO-CONNECTION

    The main trigger that kicked off Patrick’s focus on crisis mapping was the disastrous 2010 earthquake in Haiti. During that time, Patrick had close friends staying in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital and hardest-hit city. He could not stand the thought of just waiting to hear if his friends were safe—he decided to do something about it.

    By using information posted to Twitter and Facebook, Patrick and a small group of friends at Harvard began constructing a crisis map of the area. As the map grew, so did the number of volunteers.

    “The advantage is you get a lot of information coming in. The advantage about having a lot of information coming in is you can triangulate all that information,” Patrick says.

    With the help of volunteers, Patrick and his friends in “snowy Boston” were able to construct one of the most detailed maps of Haiti ever created. Haitian radio stations broadcast the plea for victims to text the crisis hotline, urging them to message where they were and what they needed. The map then assisted in directing many relief organizations to those people desperately crying for help.   

    SO, YOU WANT TO BE A . . . CRISIS MAPPER

    Patrick recommends joining the Standby Task Force if you want to change the world.

    “What we are seeing is volunteers do not have to be on the ground at the time of the crisis to make a big difference,” he says. “A Toronto student can spend her weekend mapping Haiti to save hundreds of lives in a different country very far away. There is a lot we can do today that a lot of these volunteer online networks can accomplish.”

    GET INVOLVED

    The Standby Task Force is not just for students. There are a variety of people who are actively involved. Patrick says the organization is for “anyone who wants to be a part of something and make a difference, who might be interested in humanitarian issues.”

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    capital Noun

    city where a region's government is located.

    Encyclopedic Entry: capital
    crisis map Noun

    representation of spatial information related to weather, hazards, and emergency preparedness and response.

    disaster relief Noun

    goods, services, or funds supplied to government groups, organizations, or individuals following a natural or manmade disaster that prevents the normal functioning of society.

    earthquake Noun

    the sudden shaking of Earth's crust caused by the release of energy along fault lines or from volcanic activity.

    Emerging Explorer Noun

    an adventurer, scientist, innovator, or storyteller recognized by National Geographic for their visionary work while still early in their careers.

    First Gulf War Noun

    (1990-1991) conflict in which the United States led a coalition of nations against Iraq in response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Also called the Persian Gulf War and Operation Desert Storm.

    geographic perspective Noun

    a way to understand a topic or area using spatial features and relationships.

    geography Noun

    study of places and the relationships between people and their environments.

    Encyclopedic Entry: geography
    humanitarian Adjective

    having to do with relief, aid, or other support to people in need.

    Middle East Noun

    region of southwest Asia and northeast Africa.

    narrative Noun

    story or telling of events.

    open-source Adjective

    intellectual property, usually computer software, designed to allow all users to copy and modify it.

    post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) Noun

    psychological disorder characterized by flashbacks, fatigue, and anxiety, affecting people who have endured or witnessed events such as torture, murder, rape, or war.

    psychological Adjective

    having to do with mental facilities and awareness.

    social media Plural Noun

    online means of communication used by people to develop social and professional contacts.

    triangulate Verb

    to determine distance or placement of points by calculating their distance from another point whose position is known.

    volunteer Noun

    person who performs work without being paid.

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