National Geographic : 2013 Feb
Crisis Mapper Patrick Meier was sitting in his Medford, Massachusetts, apartment when the January 2010 earthquake struck Haiti. The 35-year-old Tufts Ph.D. candidate was soon assisting quake victims—without even leaving home. Opening his laptop, he mobilized hundreds of volunteers to scrape data points from tweets, text messages, UN reports, and more to build a constantly updated online map. His efforts guided citizens, aid workers, and the U.S . Coast Guard; experts say the map likely saved hundreds of lives. Meier, a Swiss citizen who grew up in Africa, now maps crises all over the world. You caught flak from the UN after the situation in Haiti. Why? Some UN agencies struggled with their response and were slow to mobilize. Meanwhile, a large team of volunteers in snowy Boston mapped the impact of the earthquake in near real time, providing professionals with the most up-to-date information available. How did you get into mapping? When I was 12, the first Gulf War broke out. I had a big map of the Middle East and started physically mapping the updates with crayons and pens and markers. What have you and your team tackled so far? Haiti started it all. A month later there was an earthquake in Chile. Then the floods in Pakistan that summer. Russian fires in July. Floods in Brisbane in January. A major earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, that February. Election crisis maps in Egypt, in Tunisia. And the UN asked us to launch a crisis map for Libya. When you map a war zone, do you worry data will fall into the wrong hands? Definitely. These maps can be used for good or bad. In Libya, you could be the UN using the map to coordinate relief operations, or Qaddafi loyalists using it to find humanitarian convoys to target. So we password-protected that map. You take very real risks when you make a map like this and have to ensure you’re not putting people in harm’s way. is it ever too risky to make such a map? There’s a reason we didn’t get involved in Syria. In Syria you have a very sophisticated regime in terms of cyber surveillance, whereas in Libya you didn’t. We did the cost- benefit analysis and said no. THE NEW AGE OF EXPLORATION | RISK TAKER By Pat Walters Photograph by Marco Grob Marco Grob’s video interview with Patrick Meier can be viewed on our digital editions.