What We Talked About at ISA: Crisis Mapping and the Rise of Digital Humanitarianism (Part III)

This is the third of a three-part series on ‘what we talked about at ISA’. The first part on technology in International Relations can be found here. This second section on the decline of cognitive mapping is here. This final section covers the example of a particular technology being used to overcome deficiencies in cognitive mapping. (For the theoretical context, it’s well worth reading the second part of this series.) Much of the empirical research for this section stems from the work of Patrick Meier and others involved heavily in crisis mapping. Patrick’s website is a stellar resource for the changing digital nature of humanitarianism, and is highly recommended.


In the wake of the recent Haitian and Japanese earthquakes, the devastating tsunami in the Indian Ocean, and other major humanitarian disasters, increased global attention has been paid to the ways in which actors involved in humanitarianism can and should evolve to deal with these emergency situations. Media, international organizations, and non-governmental organizations have all reflected on the implications and path forward for managing crises, with a wealth of reports emerging in the wake of this decade’s crises.[1]

A similar set of complex crisis situations has become significant recently with the political events currently surging across the Arab world. While analytically distinguishable from humanitarian crises, these political crises share many common aspects and often blur at their boundaries. Political crises typically produce humanitarian crises, while humanitarian crises often stretch the capacities of political actors. The result, in either case, is a situation characterized by its complex and fast-moving nature. Moreover, in both instances there is often a dearth of reliable information. If effective political action is premised upon the conceptual representations of a situation, then rational action becomes nearly impossible in crisis situations. In this regard, the new technologies involved in ‘crisis mapping’ can be seen as a means for political actors to overcome this cognitive gap. Through this case study it can be demonstrated how political actors are in fact constructed not only socially, but also through material technology.

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