Researcher sees digital maps as key to understanding, alleviating crises

by Stephen Carr

Nagoya resident Elisa Montiel-Welti, a Mexican researcher at Kyoto’s Doshisha University, first came to Japan in 2002 as an exchange student to study international relations.

“I had very little knowledge about Asia as, growing up in Mexico, I had been influenced mainly by American and European cultures,” she says. “I was curious about the country and Japan was certainly a new challenge.”

Initially, she was interested in an Asian Studies course at Kansai Gaidai University, close to Kyoto, but once in the country, she came across what she calls “a fascinating new field”: overseas aid. Largely funded by the Japanese government, Montiel-Welti says she was surprised by the size and scope of the programs. She then went back to Mexico for two years before returning to specialize in international development at Doshisha. After completing her degree, she chose to stay longer, completing a Ph.D. and then becoming a researcher.

“Japan was not only my new home but also a door to the whole world,” she says.

While studying for her degree, she was invited to conduct research for a year at the Peace Research Institute in Oslo.

“Being around researchers who excelled in innovative methods was the best I could ever have hoped for. Also, in Oslo I met someone working with digital maps, used for assessing development projects and conflict situations. This is more or less the same technology I now use for my work, but of course, it’s 11 years more advanced. I came back to Japan with very fresh ideas.”

Montiel-Welti makes maps called geographic information systems (GIS), which involve gathering information to make visible phenomena that cannot normally be perceived.

“Maps are important visual tools, putting into pictures what policymakers and government officials traditionally see in numbers,” she says. “They pinpoint locations and distributions of things. They also put us in perspective: We can see how small we are in the face of huge disasters or conflicts.”

Montiel-Welti has praise for the precision of her Japanese colleagues who, she says, excel at gathering information and attention to detail. On the other hand, she adds: “They are very much bound to traditional methods which have already proven effective. They are not good at taking risks, afraid of innovative first steps not yet widely used in their research fields. The researchers I worked with in Europe are at the other end of the spectrum: They liked to experiment with truly multidisciplinary methodologies.”

Her experiences in Europe and Japan have allowed Montiel-Welti to tap the best of both worlds, she says.

“My Japanese adviser, professor Hisae Nakanishi, showed me how to combine both characteristics: Japanese precision and European innovation. To make this work, I needed extensive data to prove the capabilities of, and deal with problems of, the new techniques. Using maps to assess human security was already being done to measure natural disasters in Japan, but it had not been taken to other areas of social science. My adviser was very brave to allow me to apply GIS not only to traditional disaster assessment but also in researching other phenomena affecting people’s safety, such as displacement, poverty and violence.”

Two years ago, she discovered another group of people doing similar work, the Standby Task Force, which helps territories riven by wars and other catastrophes, such as Libya, which was in the throes of civil war at the time. This organization, assisted by the United Nations, created a “Libya Crisis Map” remotely with the help of contributors in Colombia, Taiwan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Pakistan, South Africa and South Sudan. Maps were then printed on paper and distributed inside Libya. For Montiel-Welti, being in Japan has been no obstacle to joining the STF on other projects, and she has mapped information about natural disasters and conflicts with the objective of helping aid delivery.

“I did not fully understand the value of the volunteer work I do, helping in disaster response, until the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in 2011,” says Montiel-Welti. “Before then, I saw it as a practice and learning tool to make maps drawing on my research on displacement. But when disaster hit so close to home, I could see how much the work of volunteers meant for real people. I followed the development of maps for disaster response in Japan very closely at that time and was very moved by the work that digital volunteers do to bring help to people they will probably never meet.”

Montiel-Welti has also made GIS maps showing the movement of unaccompanied Afghan children in Europe and of displacements caused by violence in Mexico, which she regards as her most important work.

In 2006, the Mexican government started a war on drug cartels in the north of the country, resulting in large numbers of people fleeing their homes. The area is very arid and tends to have towns with small populations, facts on the ground Montiel-Welti says the Mexican government used to downplay the crisis, which was largely ignored by the international community.

“The maps, of course, do not mean that aid came straight away,” she says, “but I think making crisis information visible is an important first step. In the case of Mexico, maps have transformed an unseen disaster into an acknowledged one. This is slowly turning into policy to protect people on the move. In some towns, shelters have been built to receive and help refugees.”

Montiel-Welti could not visit the affected areas in Mexico, so she relied on volunteer NGOs, newspapers and SMS reporting to gather the information to put on the maps. This process, she says, “is what makes digital maps so fascinating: the new technology allowing the collection of photographs, data and testimonies. The challenge for the person building the map is to accurately verify and classify the information to use.”

Montiel-Welti sees GIS maps playing an increasingly valuable role in humanitarian work around the world.

“Each map is made of many other maps that overlap and help make sense of complex realities. For example, maps show the point of origin of displacement, and then which of the areas that the refugees pass through that has policies in place to protect them. They also show which areas are dangerous for other reasons, such as harsh weather or violent groups targeting migrants. So each map is made up of dozens of layers of information, showing the bigger picture and opening up possibilities for taking action.”

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