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Crisis Mapping

Doug McCune (SpatialKey & Universal Mind)
Location: Ballroom III


When it comes to understanding and researching armed conflicts, there are no simple answers. Nor are there simple factors that drive violent conflict. Conflicts rarely stay in one area. They move. The characteristics of conflicts change in an instant, and over time. As they change, so does the impact they have on the surrounding populations.

In this session, attendees will learn how Dr. Clionadh Raleigh, a researcher with the International Peace Research Institute (PRIO) based in Oslo, Norway, and her Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED) Project team created a better understanding of conflicts in developing countries by analyzing the relationships between combatants, social groups, economies and natural phenomena using web-based location-intelligence software.

Main Idea/Challenges:

Understanding what drives political instability and violent conflict is complex. It involves bringing together multiple pieces of information from a variety of sources. It also requires studying changes over time as refugees migrate, disasters like flood or drought move entire populations and political or economic changes alter the dynamics of conflict.

The World Bank funded a database effort to help the ACLED project team better understand events in clients’ states. World Bank involvement allowed Dr. Raleigh’s team at ACLED to expand its research from central Africa to some of the world’s most unstable regions. However, it also meant that the team was tasked with doing more work and providing near real-time information.

Integrating and displaying disparate datasets on the same map and manipulating that data to understand the interactions and implications was a process that could take weeks of work, if it could be done at all. Further, analyzing this data over time and geography, a critical factor to understanding and mitigating conflict, was equally challenging if not impossible. The process of coding, mapping and analyzing all of this information was time-consuming:

• There were many data sources to sort through including local and national newspaper reports, accounts from groups like Human Rights Watch, etc.

• Every event in ACLED is associated with where it came from as well as the date, village, coordinates, participants and other factors.

• Current Geographic Information Systems (GIS) tools were difficult to use.

• Even simple questions that needed geospatial analysis required GIS expertise.

Timely, collaborative data sharing was also difficult, forcing most research groups to work in relative isolation, focusing solely on their areas of interest and expertise. Information was shared in papers, at conferences, and sometimes exchanged using Excel files and shapefiles, but in most cases shared using a few static maps printed in long scholarly papers.

While the community was struggling to find ways to analyze and share their information, the conflicts were taking place in real time. Combatants were moving. Refugee camps were being closed or moved. Floods or droughts were driving conflicted populations more deeply into poverty and closer to combat areas or to populations with which they’d had been in previous conflicts. It was difficult for researchers to understand patterns and thus help alleviate people’s suffering.


In order to alleviate the pressure on ACLED Project team’s staff and to help the community gain a critical understanding of what drives political and economic instability and what translates that into violent conflict, ACLED Project team employed SpatialKey, an innovative, web-based location intelligence solution.

SpatialKey offers proximity analysis capabilities that assist Dr. Raleigh’s team in improving methodologies for the academic investigation of conflict patterns. Proximity analysis is useful for addressing questions such as, ‘Did the majority of events in Sierra Leone happen within 10 miles of a refugee camp?’ Users are able to view conflict hotspots within an area and analyze the propensity of camps to attract violence or be the center of violence.

Proximity analysis is also useful for challenging assumptions. For example, many have considered civil wars to be primarily rural events, but SpatialKey has shown that these wars tend to happen close to larger cities as rebel groups attempt to engage with the military.

As for collaboration, the new ACLED Project website allows people to directly access SpatialKey, where the depth of the analysis is left up to the user. Since the ACLED Project team provides data for a range of institutions and research, this is a key strength. For those who want to view a particular conflict, the website provides an easy and interactive way to visualize conflict dynamics. For those who want to find information on rebel movement, conflict diffusion or conflict cycles, longer-term analysis is possible. For those who want to integrate their own spatial or temporal data with ACLED, this option is available as well. Further, new data can be created by the interaction of multiple datasets within the same platform.


By employing an easy to use/easily deployable/web-based, location intelligence application, ACLED Project entered the next generation of conflict analysis and crisis mapping. Where the ACLED Project team was previously limited in its ability to identify and understand complex political instability, it now has a collaborative tool that allows the research community to discern similarities or disparities to previous patterns, which in turn can inform predictive models of civil war.

With this level of intimate knowledge, researchers are optimistic that they can promote a more peaceful world through conflict resolution, dialogue and reconciliation, public information, and policy making activities.

Doug McCune

SpatialKey & Universal Mind

Doug McCune is a Principal Software Engineer at Universal Mind specializing in geospatial data visualization. He is a passionate Flex developer, consultant, and is active in the Flex open-source community where he maintains a blog of his thoughts, code samples, and tutorials. He also co-founded FlexLib, a leading resource for open-source Flex components created by community developers, and authored the book, Adobe Flex 3.0 For Dummies.