In the summer of 2011, drought, conflict, and rising food prices developed into a famine that threatens over 13 million people in the Horn of Africa. This crisis is projected to last for months. The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) has on-the-ground operations distributing food and helping to mitigate suffering and casualties. They are able to feed a woman or child for just 50 cents a day.
More than 45 humanitarian and relief organizations are also working on this crisis. Many, such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), release valuable data that can help to explain the state of the crisis and how it is likely to develop over time.
Sharing data about the famine's impact and humanitarian response will save lives by increasing public awareness of the crisis and improving coordination among organizations involved in the relief effort.
The data made available for mapping a crisis like this is often distributed in closed, proprietary formats like PDF or image files, which makes it difficult for organizations share each others' data. PDFs and images are not easily merged or sorted, so it's difficult to get a multidimensional view of a given situation.
To overcome this we first processed data from USAID and and OCHA to build a set of five free, publicly available maps that show the impact of the famine. These maps include current famine levels across eastern Africa, as well as three and six month projections. We also released two maps that show drought conditions.
These maps are shareable as embedded features for websites and blogs, or downloadable for offline use. Individually each helps explain the complexity of the famine. Organizations can also layer these maps with their own data, improving their understanding of the situation and allowing them to make better decisions about scarce resource allocation.
Next we built a campaign around the current famine conditions layered with WFP's operational data. The interactive site is raising money for WFP by showing the public why WFP needs their assistance and where it will go. The site heavily encourages visitors to share this message, either through their social networks or by embedding the map on their own website or blog. Embedded maps are branded clearly as a WFP feature with a prominent 'donate' button.
Making data available and shareable in public formats helps relief organizations better explain their impact and coordinate their response efforts. We will continue to work with our partners at the UN and USAID to map the famine and release this information for use. Through this we hope to inspire a culture of open data in the humanitarian community that outlasts this crisis.
With the right open standards in place, like MBTiles for portable map layers and open source tools like TileMill for map design, relief organizations are now able to turn spreadsheets into actionable visualizations that communicate complex realities in concrete terms.