Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Mapping Conflict

One of the primer uses of Geographic Information Systems is to take complex data sets and turn it into a visually easy map to understand.  Because the tool is so multifaceted it can be used for environmentalist, community planners, politicians, and everyone in between; everyone needs a map of some sort.  For instance, the military has started using GIS technologies to map out safe and unsafe zones in Iraq in order to better apply American resources.  
Richard M Medina (Department of Geography and GeoInformation Science, George Mason University), Laura K Siebeneck (Department of Public Administration, University of North Texas), and George F Hepner (Department of Geography, University of Utah) compile some of this information in “A Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Analysis of Spatiotemporal Patterns of Terrorist Incidents in Iraq 2004–2009” (2011).  
Data collected came from the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center’s (NCTC) Worldwide Incidents Tracking System (WITS) online database and contained 22,805 Iraqi incidents between January 1 2004 and December 31 2009.  This database defined attacks as “incidents in which subnational or clandestine groups or individuals deliberately or recklessly attacked civilians or noncombatants” (865, 2011).  Of the 22,805 incidents 98.6 percent of them could be located with GIS and were turned into a shapefile (865, 2011).  Maps were then created based on a six month basis (Jan-June, July-Dec) in order to show a temporal aspect.  Attack intensity for an area was then defined as the sum of fatalities, injuries, and hostages divided by the total number of incidents.

Medina, Siebeneck, and Hapner first mapped out the total attacks and locations

Then by overlaying the intensity of the attacks, as “ one large attack with many casualties will be much more damaging than 100 small casualty-free attacks” the most concerned areas will be highlighted.

A temporal effect then be created by setting maps beside each other separated by 6 month time periods.  

Some districts do stand out, namely; Bayji, Tikrit, Samarra, Balad, and Ar Ramadi.  Moreover, some patterns can be seen in how the violence escalated and moved somewhat southeast.  It is also important to understand terrorism as a tool to inspire the most fear and to be predominantly occurring in recreational places (Bali bombings), symbolic meanings (US World Trade Center), or civilian areas (like trains or hotels) (863, 2011).  A timeline of important events can also be ued as a tool in understanding the pattern of attacks.

Medina, Siebeneck, and Hapner conclude with 4 bullets of analysis:

“(1) attacks correlate with population variables while intensities do not;
(2) both number and intensity of attacks should be considered to find priority areas;
(3)attack patterns are variable over time; and
(4) social, political, and cultural triggers that drive terrorist activity can be identified.”

While the data set contains over 20,000 incidents a GIS map can be made to show the areas of most concern that threaten human life while the raw data itself is far too overwhelming.  GIS is a tool that makes maps, and some of those maps can be used to save lives.


  1. It would be interesting to know if the attacks correlate with the presence of coalition bases or convey routes used by the military. The study should also use GIS to map out Iraq's ethnic groups to determine if certain groups are more prone to using terrorist attacks than another group. An advance study may want to map out Iraq according to income characteristics and then run some regressions to reveal if income influences terrorist attacks. If so, then economic growth may reduce attacks. Future projects may also use GIS to map out Iraq by its voting behavior and then use it see if patterns emerge between terrorist attacks and political parties.

  2. I think this application of GIS serves to put the effects of war in perspective. As you stated, GIS can serve to demonstrate areas of concern whereas the raw data can be overwhelming. It would be interesting to see maps that also show the social, political, and cultural triggers that the authors stated that could be identified in comparison to the maps of areas with heavy conflict. This may help better understand the conflict and other contributing factors in the conflict.