What is Mapping? 

Mapping, which is simply the process of making maps, is useful for identifying factors in a situation and seeing the connections between those factors. Recently, mapping has become a useful tool in human rights work, particularly in helping document human rights’ abuses and violations across the globe. While the field of mapping is a growing one, two of the most frequently used forms of mapping are concept mapping and cartographical mapping.

Concept Mapping  

Concept maps are visual representations of relationships between different ideas and factors. When concept mapping is used within the framework of social issues, such as human rights’ violations, the process is referred to as ‘social mapping’. So in this context, mapping can be defined as a participatory or collaborative tool to visually depict a specific social problem or issue to allow for in-depth and systematic analysis. 

Social mapping is useful for engaging communities or certain groups in pinpointing human rights violations and abuses that occur within their local sphere and in drawing out the web of factors that perpetuate those violations. This kind of participatory approach encourages communities to critically analyze social issues and to then take collective action.

Concept Mapping Methods 

While there are different forms of social mapping, four types are covered briefly here. Diagrammatic (schematic) mapping and tactical mapping are best for mapping human rights abuses, while development mapping and cultural mapping are more effective in advancing human rights in communities. As mapping is inherently visual, examples of each type can be found here.

Diagrammatic (Schematic) Mapping 

A diagrammatic map consists of a specific violation at the center, with different aspects of the violation, such as perpetrators, victims, and methods, encircling it. It is simple yet powerful in its ability to take both broad and specific issues and simplify them into a diagram that conveys all the different components of a particular problem. 

Tactical Mapping

Tactical mapping focuses on identifying key relationships between people, groups, and organizations involved in a human rights abuse and sees each relationship as an opportunity to intervene. Using those relationships, the process of tactical mapping involves creating tactics to put an end to perpetuated abuse, such as determining which groups can become allies for a particular cause.

Development Mapping

Development mapping maps out concrete social developments, such as education and health facilities or administrative buildings, in a specified, usually smaller, location. These maps are typically used to identify and prioritize development needs in a community, but have been increasingly used to determine the different factors that lead certain groups to become marginalized and unable to benefit from overall development. 

Cultural Mapping 

Cultural mapping is a participatory process in which a community maps out their relationship to their territory and ecosystems, which include villages, burial grounds, and forests, to name a few, as well as their traditional names for them. This process is useful for determining ownership of land by traditional communities, since it amplifies the historical relationship between people and their natural environments, and can thus establish proof of tenure and use of resources.

Cartographical Mapping 

Cartographical maps are graphic depictions of a regional surface of the earth and can be drawn to represent its geographical, geopolitical, or geological features. While maps were generally produced by government-sponsored surveys and required specialized skills in the past, the rise of digital mapping (e.g. Google Earth) has created opportunities for civilians to easily use mapping tools for various purposes, including the documentation of human rights violations. 

As human rights work is nearly always connected to a physical location, mapping is a natural medium to display research in a simplified way and to engage viewers with the issues. Quality research that would typically comprise a dense report can instead be transposed onto a map, an engaging visual that is powerful in its ability to show and tell. Furthermore, a digital mapping platform gives both violations and human rights activism a spatial dimension, and allows activists to engage with each other on issues across a region, creating a sense of community and perhaps even human rights campaigns. To learn more about different categories of mapping, please click here.

Impact of Cartographical Mapping in Advocacy

Crisis in Darfur

Crisis in Darfur is a collaborative project between the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and Google to shed light on the genocide in Darfur, Sudan by combining satellite imagery and layers of data and multimedia on Google Earth. In the bigger picture, the purpose of this project is to bring mass atrocities across the globe to the surface and to transform the way information about such events is shared.

The Darfur crisis began in the Darfur region of Western Sudan in 2003 – the first genocide of the 21st century – and continues to this day. The Janjaweed, a government-aided Arab paramilitary group, carried out the genocide by systematically destroying villages and homes, raping women and children, and torturing and murdering Darfurians, which resulted in the death of over 300,000 people. The destruction of 1,600 villages led to the displacement of 2.5 million people, who have had to seek refuge in neighboring villages and countries.

In spite of this, the Sudanese government claims that the “civil war” in Darfur has taken less than 9,000 lives in an attempt to hide the full extent and true nature of the crisis and to deny its role in it. Previously, claims like these were difficult to refute because of the limited access to evidence. Now, however, anyone with access to Google Earth can zoom into Darfur, Sudan, and see destruction of village after village in high-resolution.

The project made this possible by bringing together Google’s satellite data imagery and the Museum’s data to not only show the location of the attacks in Darfur, but to also show the impact on each village and its residents. The mass destruction is undeniable in the face of image after image of the charred remains of villages and of crowded tents in refugee camps that now house displaced Darfurians. The stories of Darfurians became more personal when people could see what had happened with their eyes through the photographic and video content provided by Museum staff and read their testimonies, as collected by Amnesty International.

Transitional Justice Working Group, South Korea

Transitional Justice Working Group (TJWG) is a Seoul-based, non-governmental organization that is currently documenting human rights violations in North Korea by mapping mass graves. Despite the fact that access to North Korea is restricted, TJWG has been able to determine the location of mass grave sites through the testimonies of over 550 North Korean defectors and pin them on Google Earth. The purpose of this project is to provide a sense of the scale of the human rights violations, specifically the locations of atrocities and the numbers of victims. In the bigger picture, the work is in anticipation of a period of transitional justice in North Korea, in order that people may have access to an accurate historical record and that international rights officials may be able to “investigate, exhume bodies, secure forensic evidence and possibly bring charges against perpetrators.”

To date, TJWG has released a report entitled, “Mapping Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea: Mass Graves, Killing Sites and Documentary Evidence,” which provides information on mass graves and location data on sites that may hold records of human rights violations, such as police stations or governmental buildings. In the future, TJWG looks to use remote sensing technologies that could be used to detect sites in North Korea that hold human remains.

Last Updated: January 8, 2019

Author: Sarah Kim