Mapping Disasters

With a great deal of media fanfare, Google Earth and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum have launched a collaboration that allows Google Earth users to see and interact with the unfolding genocide in Darfur. The Google Earth layer produced through this collaboration taps into the resources of the Holocaust Museum, giving the user access to the growing corpus of information the Museum is collecting on the Darfur genocide–images, data, and text files. This alone is an important collaboration, because it shows how the collection of a major institution like the museum can be easily displayed on a map in a way that gives anyone with Google Earth downloaded quick and easy access to the collection. And in this case, it is especially important because the information displayed makes it all but impossible to argue that a genocide is not taking place in Darfur.


Just as important, though, is the fact that individuals can also add their own content to this map. Already a number of photographs of the situation in Darfur have been added by Google Earth users and with all the attention this project has gained in the last 24 hours, one would assume that by the end of the week many more images will be added. The link that is then created between the resources of an institution like the Holocaust Museum and individuals is the part that is really new here. Until relatively recently, museum collections and personal collections could not be displayed together. In this case that mash up of institutional and personal data not only stretches the boundaries of what we think of as the presentation of content from a museum, but also does some good in the world (we hope).

For all the hype that this collaboration has received in the media today (and I’m glad the crisis in Darfur is getting this sort of attention), the Darfur map is not something new.

For the past two years we’ve been doing exactly the same thing. Using Google’s mapping API we have two projects that map the contours of disaster. Our Hurricane Digital Memory Bank and September 11 Digital Archive both include map-based interfaces that allow users to see the geography of our collections. And, like the Darfur project, our databases are open to all contributors and so users can help build the archives of these two disasters. To date, tens of thousands of people have contributed to these projects, demonstrating the efficacy of this approach to building historical archives.

September 11

The important lesson here, it seems to me, is that when we break down the barriers between “the archive” and “the public” something new and exciting begins to happen. Content that historians will value in years to come ends up being saved alongside content that professional archivists decide should be part of the institutional collection. Our digital archives are largely free-standing affairs, that is, they display what the public puts into them and not the collections of major institutions. What I think the Google/Holocaust Museum collaboration points to is a different model–one that brings together both players in the digital archiving process in a way that will maximize the access to information both now and in the future.

There are challenges, of course. Our experience shows that once an event drops off the radar screen of the general public, contributions to the archive have to be found the old fashioned way–by beating the bushes and asking people to contribute or by building alliances with other content holders or creators. Unless our experience is somehow unique, the Darfur archive that will emerge around this interface will also run out of steam once the crisis passes and the attention of the public and the institutions moves elsewhere.

Another challenge is vetting the content. What should be displayed online and what shouldn’t? We’ve made the choice to display all content that is not driven by a desire for some sort of gain–so, for instance, all spam entries to the database are deleted. But what about content that conflicts with the thrust of the project? So, in the case of the Darfur project, what happens when members of the rebel groups burning villages and committing atrocities start posting their own images? Will Google censor these contributions? How can the authenticity of contributions be verified?

All of these questions are familiar to professional archivists who have been grappling with them in the analog world for centuries. It seems to me that many of the rules developed over time by the archivist community ought still to apply. At the same time, as a historian, I want to see all the content generated by an event, not just the portion of that content that serves a particular purpose. And so, as much as I detest the actions of the militia in Darfur, if I were writing a book about the genocide, I would want access to materials created both by the victims and their tormentors.

None of these issues will be resolved quickly or easily. Collaborations like the Google/Holocaust Museum project and other digital archives like ours on September 11 or the Katrina-Rita hurricanes of 2005 will continue to force us to try to resolve them as quickly as possible.

2 thoughts on “Mapping Disasters

  1. Pingback: Western Civ As We Know It » Blog Archive » Darfur Site

  2. Pingback: Relaxing on the Trail » Museums and Mapping

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