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Thoughts on the Use of SMS Phones with Disaster Relief Maps

I drafted the following material about a week ago as part of a much longer essay on the possibilities of using maps over the internet for disaster rellief. Some of it drawns upon material from previous blog entries of mine. It was written before I thought there was a realistic possibility of integrating SMS phone information into maps I helped create. Now, if we can get the world out to those who need to know about the SMS Quake blog, we are much closer to the reality of that.

The context of the following passage is that when the earthquake hit, I was at the Wolfram Technology Conference in Champaign, Illinois. So I kept buttonholing smart techies to ask for advice on how what I was doing mightbe done better.

Some of the most interesting suggestions came from Luc Barthelet of Electronic Arts who had come to do a presentation on prototyping the game SimCity in Mathematica. We talked about the utility of having layers of data on the existence or non-existence of building codes, on the relative heights and ages of the buildings. And then he made what I thought was the best suggestion of all, though it probably can’t be implemented this time out: set up a phone number such that people can phone in pictures and information associated with specific coordinates; do this in such a way that it automatically annotates the map. I thought this was a truly visionary suggestion for several reasons.

First of all, some of the best personal reportage from the tsunami had been sent in by people writing on their cell phones and cell phones are a much more ubiquitous technology in the 3rd World than desktop computers with Internet connections. But more important, it seemed to me, was the beautifully humanizing aspect of such a technological innovation. He was proposing that we given disaster victims and relief workers voices, faces, proposing that we be able to see through their eyes.

Traditionally, the view from above—the narrative point of view of satellite or aerial photo—is military, that of the bomber pilot: You look at people that way when you think it might be okay to kill them en mass. One of the effects of having spent weeks scrutinizing aerial and satellite photos for people wanting information about their homes, their families, their pets, is that I am now longer able to look at aerial photos of damage in the same way. It has become much more personalized. I experience it as a stripping away of a twentieth century attitude of abstract detachment, an attitude that the legacy of World War II and the Cold War encouraged.

A few weeks ago, a Japanese fellow who is my age and goes by the handle of Earthhopper was testing out Google Earth's newly added images of Hiroshima and discovered an odd lack of clarity in the area of the Hiroshima memorial, the Hiroshima Atomic Bomb Dome.

To correct this oversight, Earthhopper has used the same techniques that Shawn MacBride and the Google Earth Current Events community used to superimpose images of the New Orleans levee breaks upon satellite images, but this time on Hiroshima, superimposing photos of the devastated land on the overly-fuzzy Google Earth view of modernday Hiroshima. His photo caption read,

Image overlay of Hiroshima Atomic Bomb Dome, taken in 1945. The atomic bomb hit the city on Aug 6, 1945 and killed more than 140,000 people on the day, 240,000+ listed as of now.

Earthhopper and I were both born in 1962. He is the son of a physician. I am the daughter of a nuclear physicist, though of the generation after the Manhattan project and who has never worked on weapons research. This lead to some interesting correspondence. Upon seeing his Hiroshima overlays, I wrote,

Each and every one of those several hundred thousand people had a name and a face and a life story. We have been encouraged to distance ourselves from this kind of information, encouraged to be overwhelmed by it. But is that just the way we are, or is it a political construct of the twentieth century? Can we get beyond it? It seems to me that this technique has broad applications in historical photography and in helping us forge a new psychological relationship with history.

What Luc Barthelet was proposing was even more radical and more humanizing: to give voice to those in distress that the 20th century view of the world gives up for dead while they are still alive.

ShareMeanwhile, my CommunityWalk Earthquake Map information can now be exported to a Google Earth overlay. Go to the map, click on the brown "Share" button at the lower right of the map, then click on the brown "Google Earth" button that appears in same corner.