Friday, February 10, 2012

Maps, Meth and the Lord’s Resistance Army

Maps have evolved in some pretty amazing ways, from the night sky maps carved onto cave walls in Lascaux, to modern day collaborative maps built by millions of citizen cartographers around the world. Using maps, we can look at how the world around us has changed. We can also use maps to govern more effectively, save lives or just find the cheapest beer.

But what makes maps really exciting isn’t what they can tell us about our past or present, but what they could potentially tell us about our future, both good and bad.

A recent Fast Company piece entitled, “Google Maps Help Predict Meth Labs Before They Open” touches on this idea. In his 2009 book, Geography and the Drug Addiction, Dr. Max Lu took three years of data around meth lab seizures and used it to show the likely spread of those meth labs in the future.

Thousands of miles away, predictive analysis was being used by GeoEye to map political conflict and refugees in central Africa. Using the AnthroMapper and Signature Analyst tools, GeoEye’s analysts were able to identify the pattern of both the Lord’s Resistance Army and related refugee populations.

Overlapping geospatial models for LRA and refugees (image courtesy of GeoEye)

They then used statistical models to represent the geospatial “signature” of this activity and identified regions where new conflict was more likely to occur in the future. Combining this model with population density statistics helped NGOs, local governments and the military focus their resources.

Populations at higher risk (images courtesy of GeoEye)

Given these two examples of predictive mapping in fighting crime and political violence, I’d like to pose this question to all of you: what else can we predict using maps, and how can maps help us make better decisions?
If we’re able to map out historical deforestation using satellite imagery, shouldn’t we be able to map future deforestation as well? Using that same satellite imagery, shouldn’t we be able to combine those deforestation maps with historical flood data to predict the next food shortage?

Maps are powerful tools that, combined with the right data, can help us make better public policy decisions. It’s also why policy makers must protect and encourage geospatial technology. From climate science to fighting crime, the possibilities are endless. I’d like to think predicting the future is a good place to start.

Posted by Charlie Hale, Geo Policy Analyst at Google

No comments: