Conflict Urbanism

I’m in Copenhagen – and still bleary-eyed – for a symposium organised by my good friends Kirsten Simonsen and Lasse Koefoed at Roskilde on their current project  ‘Paradoxical spaces: Encountering the other in public space‘.  I’ll be talking about the war in Syria, drawing on my previous work on attacks on hospitals, healthcare workers and patients (see ‘Your turn, doctor‘) – which I’ve now considerably extended as I work on turning all this into  a longform essay: I’ll post some updates as soon as I can – but now adding a detailed discussion of siege warfare in Syria.  More on that in my next post; but for now I wanted to share some remarkable work on Aleppo by Laura Kurgan and her students at the Center for Spatial Research at Columbia:

Conflict Urbanism: Aleppo is a project in two stages.

First, we have built an open-source, interactive, layered map of Aleppo, at the neighborhood scale. Users can navigate the city, with the aid of high resolution satellite imagery from before and during the current civil war, and explore geo-located data about cultural sites, neighborhoods, and urban damage.

Second, the map is a platform for storytelling with data. We are inviting collaborators and students to bring new perspectives and analyses into the map to broaden our understanding of what’s happening in Aleppo. Case studies will document and narrate urban damage — at the infrastructural, neighborhood, building, social, and cultural scales — and will be added to the website over time.

We invite ideas and propositions, and hope to build on the data we have compiled here to create an active archive of the memory of destruction in Aleppo through investigation and interpretation, up close and from a distance.

That last phrase is an echo of Laura’s book, Close Up at a Distance: Mapping, Technology and Politics, published by MIT in 2013.  The new project emerged out of a seminar taught by Laura in 2016:

Students worked collaboratively to develop a series of case studies using a map developed by the Center for Spatial Research, specifically designed to research urban damage in Aleppo during the ongoing civil war. Their work incorporates a range of disciplines, methods and results. Each student was asked to create case studies and add layers to the existing map. The results — spatializing youtube video, interior borders between fighting factions, imagining urban survival during wartime, imaging escape routes, audio memory maps, roads, water, hospitals, informal neighborhoods, religion, communications infrastructure, and refugee camps at the borders — are [available online here].

I’m particularly taken by ‘Spatializing the YouTube War’.   One of the challenges for those of us who follow these events ‘at a distance’ is precisely how to get ‘close up’; digital media and the rise of citizen journalism have clearly transformed our knowledge of many of today’s conflict zones – think, for example, of the ways in which Forensic Architecture has used online videos to narrate and corroborate Russian and Syrian Arab Air Force attacks on hospitals in rebel-held areas Syria; similarly, Airwars has used uploaded videos for its painstaking analysis of US and coalition airstrikes and civilian casualties (see this really good backgrounder by Greg Jaffe on Kinder Haddad, one of the Airwars team, ‘How a woman in England tracks civilian deaths in Syria, one bomb at a time) – and I’ve used similar sources to explore the effects of siege warfare on Aleppo, Homs and Madaya.

Here is how Laura and her students – in this case, Nadine Fattaleh, Michael James Storm and Violet Whitney describe their contribution:

The civil war in Syria has shown how profoundly the rise of cellphones with video-cameras, as well as online video-hosting and emergent citizen journalism, has changed the landscape of war documentation. YouTube has become one of the largest sources (and archives) of information about events on the ground in Syria: since January 2012 over a million videos of the conflict there have been uploaded, with hundreds of millions of views to date. Major news agencies have come to rely on YouTube as a primary source for their reporting, and human rights organizations often cite videos as part of their advocacy and documentation efforts. This independently reported footage has created a new powerful archive, but opens up crucial questions of credibility, verification, and bias. As with all data, every video comes to us bearing the traces of the situation and intentions that motivated its production. This does not disqualify it – quite to the contrary – but it does demand that we approach everything critically and carefully.

We set out to investigate YouTube as archive of the Syrian uprising and to develop a method for organizing that archive spatially. We used the frameworks that we had developed for the Conflict Urbanism Aleppo interactive map, together with a naming convention used by Syrian civic media organizations, in order to sort and geolocate YouTube videos from multiple sources. We then produced a searchable interactive interface for three of the most highly cited YouTube channels, the Halab News Network, the Aleppo Media Center, and the Syrian Civil Defense. We encourage journalists, researchers, and others to use this specifically spatial tool in sorting and searching through the YouTube dataset.

The Halab News Network [above] shows a wide distribution of videos across the city, including the city center and government-held Western side of the city. The Eastern half of the city — in particular the Northeastern neighborhoods of ash-Sha’ar (الشعار), Hanano (هنانو), and Ayn at-Tal (عين التينة) – is the best-documented.

In contrast:

The videos published by the Aleppo Media Center [above] roughly follow the formerly rebel-held Eastern side of the city, with a small number of videos from the central and Western areas. The highest number of videos is in the neighborhood of ash-Sha’ar (الشعار). Particular spots include ash-Sha’ar (الشعار), coverage of which is shared with the Syrian Civil Defense. Another notable concentration are two neighborhoods in the Southwest, Bustan al-Qaser (بستان القصر) and al-Fardos (الفردوس).

They also analyse the video geography produced by the White Helmets [below]: ‘The Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, have uploaded videos primarily in the formerly rebel-held Eastern and Southern areas of Aleppo. Only the Western area of ash-Shuhada’ (الشهداء) falls outside of this trend.’

This, like the other collaborative projects under the ‘Conflict Urbanism’ umbrella, is brilliant, essential work, and we are all in their debt.

You can read more about the project in a short essay by Laura, ‘Conflict Urbanism, Aleppo: Mapping Urban Damage’, in Architectural Design 87 (1) (2017) 72-77, and in another essay she has written with Jose Francisco Salarriaga and Dare Brawley, ‘Visualizing conflict: possibilities for urban research’, open access download via Urban Planning 2 (1) (2017) here [this includes notice of a parallel project in Colombia].

Aleppo in London and Berlin

A common response to mass violence elsewhere is to imagine its impact transferred to our own lives and places.  It’s a problematic device in all sorts of ways.  After Hiroshima and Nagasaki US media became obsessed with imagining the impact of a nuclear attack on US cities – though, as I’ve also noted elsewhere, there were multiple ironies in conjuring up ‘Hiroshima, USA’ – and in the wake of the US-led invasion of Iraq there were several artistic projects that mapped the violence in Baghdad onto (for example) Boston, New York or San Francisco (I discussed some of them in the closing sections of ‘War and Peace’: DOWNLOADS tab).

This may be one way to ‘bring the war home’, as Martha Rosler‘s mesmerising work has shown, and even constitute a counter-mapping of sorts, but sometimes it can devolve into a critical narcissism: rather than being moved by the suffering of others, we place ourselves in the centre of the frame.  To forestall any misunderstanding about Rosler’s own work, let me repeat what I wrote in ‘War and Peace’:

Domestic critics have frequently noted the interchange between security regimes inside and outside the United States; they insist that the ‘war on terror’ ruptures the divide between inside and outside, and draw attention to its impact not only ‘there’ but also ‘here’. But Rosler’s sharper point is to goad her audience beyond what sometimes trembles on the edge of a critical narcissism (‘we are vulnerable too’) to recognise how often ‘our’ wars violate ‘their’ space: her work compels us to see that what she makes seem so shocking in ‘our’ space is all too terrifyingly normal in ‘theirs’.

So it’s with somewhat mixed feelings that I record Hans Hack‘s attempt to transfer violence in Aleppo to London and Berlin.

He explains his Reprojected Destruction like this:

The United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) has recently published a map which “illustrates the percentage of buildings damaged in the city of Aleppo” based on satellite imagery analysis. The map shows the levels of destruction in each of Aleppo’s districts. For this project “Reprojected Destruction” information from that map has been reprojected onto figure-ground maps of Berlin and London. As a geographical reference point, the historical center of Aleppo (The Citadel of Aleppo) has been superimposed on that of Berlin (Museum Island) and London (The Tower of London). The reprojected destruction is indicated by randomly selected buildings marked in red. To make it more representative, the distribution of the reprojected destruction has also been mapped with respect to Aleppo’s administrative borders provided by OCHA. The overall aim of the exercise is to help viewers imagine the extent of destruction that might have been visited upon the UK and German capitals had these cities stood at the centre of Syria’s current conflict.

Hans told Reuters:

For me it’s hard to understand in the news what it means, how strongly Aleppo was destroyed. I wanted to take this information and project it onto something I know personally that I can have some reference to. So I chose Berlin and London.

But the key question for me is simply this: why is it so hard?

Mapping Syria

I’ve had several e-mails about maps of the conflict in Syria.  For a quick introduction, a good place to start is Chatham House‘s interactive series here.  It’s illuminating and impressive: scroll down and you’ll see what I mean.

Most press maps – including those in the Guardian and the New York Times – use multiple sources for their mapping projects, but most of them incorporate data from the IHS Conflict Monitor and the Institute for the Study of War.

IHS Conflict Monitorproduced by  IHS (Information Handling Services: Jane’s is a subsidiary), combines geospatial intelligence and social media monitoring.  It’s been particularly effective in tracing the territorial extent of IS and other insurgent groups in Syria:

The credentials of the Institute for the Study of War are thoroughly neo-conservative (it was established by Kimberly Kagan in 2007), but its maps have drawn users of all stripes  – and stars – to them: you can find an assessment by Evan Lewis at GeoCurrents here.  The map below plots Russian airstrikes – for comparable data on US-led airstrikes you need Airwars – but what the press are usually most interested in is the background data on shifting areas of control.

From December 2012 until it closed in June 2015 ACAP‘s Syria Needs Analysis Project (SNAP) also provided a series of maps plotting the changing areas of control:

Still ongoing, the Carter Center’s Conflict Resolution Program has an invaluable mapping project that issues weekly conflict reports:

Since 2012, the Syria Conflict Mapping Project has worked to analyze open source information related to the Syrian conflict in as much detail as possible, with the goal of assisting mediators and humanitarian responders. Using these publicly available resources, as well as regular consultations with stakeholders in the country, the Center has documented and mapped over 70,000 conflict events in Syria (including clashes, aerial bombardments, artillery shelling, etc.), the changing relations between thousands of armed groups, movements of internally displaced people, and humanitarian conditions.

Analyzed together, this information allows The Carter Center to provide mediators and humanitarian responders with up-to-date, detailed analysis on developments throughout Syria. Additionally, the Center maintains a near real-time, auto-updating map of areas of control throughout Syria. All of this information is analyzed and is shared directly with mediators and humanitarian organizations through a software tool provided by Palantir Technologies.

Regular readers (if not of this blog then of The Intercept) will detect the irony of the involvement of Peter Thiel‘s Palantir (for its enlistment in the NSA’s global surveillance, see here; for its function as the engine of Trump’s ‘deportation machine’, see here).  But the Carter Centre’s maps are really helpful, not least for the historical sequence they provide, monthly from January 2015.  I’ve grabbed a screenshot below, and you can access the full sequence here.

You wouldn’t guess it from the corporate-speak in the paragraph I quoted, but these maps draw heavily from social media too.  As Kane Farabaugh explains:

Despite a gap in media coverage, a then-enterprising intern discovered reliable information was available, hiding in plain sight, due largely to the fact the Syrian conflict unfolded in a part of the world where many are connected, digitally.

“Syrians, and people in the Middle East in general, are two to four times more likely to share information about politics, and religious views online,” said that former intern, Christopher McNaboe, citing a Pew Research Center study on social media habits of those living in the Middle East.

“In the case of Syria, there’s just too much. Videos, Facebook posts, tweets, blogs, photos, you name it…Syrians are very active and passionate about getting information out,” he said….

“The information available online ranges anywhere from political statements, and defections, and armed group formations, to footage of the actual fighting, and humanitarian relief efforts; you name it,” says McNaboe.

“I think the Syrian conflict represents a major paradigm shift, a major change in the way in which conflict plays out,” he adds. “Previous conflicts did not take place in connected environments like Syria. There wasn’t YouTube. There wasn’t Twitter.”

Finally, over at the National Geographic Gael Cérez and Chris O’Brien provide an illuminating survey of several online cartographers (Cartography 2.0 in action) – including the remarkable Robert Cross, one of the founders of the Institute for United Conflict Analysts – and append a list noting those cartographers who are ‘pro-rebel’, ‘pro-government’ and ‘pro-Kurd’.  More on crowd-sourcing maps of the conflict from Aleszu Bajek here.

Deconstructing the map

515-00-wcbl-_sx331_bo1204203200_In the wake of the Trump administration’s shock at the non-existent Bowling Green Massacre, its fabricated comments on immigrants, refugees and crime in Sweden (for the record, I’ve been to Rinkeby in the company of Nordic geographers, and I also have Allan Pred‘s brilliant Even in Sweden on my shelves: and I’d also recommend Gavan Titley‘s elegant ‘Swedens of the mind‘ over at Critical Legal Thinking), and – in spectacular contrast – Trump’s sullen silence over attacks on immigrants, refugees and Muslims that did happen,  The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has just published an important and incisive take-down of a map that went viral (the mot juste) in 2016.

Its reporters explain:

Last year, an anonymously-produced map started to make its way around German social media. It claimed to show viewers the spread of “refugee and migrant crime” throughout Germany.

Unlike some of the lurid tales of migrant depravity that have circulated in Germany in recent months and turned out to be false, the interactive map seemed professionally put together. Each pin on it correlated to a police or media report of a crime (“we don’t document cases simply on the basis of hearsay”, its makers claimed).

The map, called XY-Einzelfall (a sarcastic riposte to the idea each migrant crime is simply an ‘isolated case’ – Einzelfall in German) was viewed more than four million times.


One of the XY-Einzelfall (XYE) social media followers tweeted over 80 times as new crimes were added to the map: “The time’s coming when Germans will need to carry guns for self-protection.”

But analysis of the map’s methodology by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism shows that it is systematically misleading, often attributing crimes to migrants or refugees on the basis of nothing more than a witness statement that the perpetrator was “dark-skinned” or “southern”. On top of this, the project vastly overstates the figures on migrant crime through skewed use of statistics.

Tracing the map’s presence on social media also shows it to be far from politically neutral. An account in XYE’s name on the Russian social media site VKontakte is rife with the kind of pro-Trump pro-Putin memes which have become the signature of the global alt-right. These are also the dominant affiliations of the Twitter accounts promoting the map. Overtly racist and xenophobic memes are also commonplace.

Most readers – especially those familiar with the stream of work set in motion by Brian Harley – will not be surprised to find that the map’s authors summon the supposed objectivity and facticity of cartography as a legitimating device:

The map’s creators like to portray their approach as scientific, mimicking the language of academics and think tanks. In January they released a “7-day analysis of published police reports”, with a breakdown of crimes by groups of different origins and a headline suggesting that 84% of crimes were committed by migrants.

In fact, the 84% figure is completely misleading. The map makers have stripped out all crimes in which the perpetrators’ background is not mentioned from their calculation. The true percentage of crimes in this period committed by migrants – according to XYE’s own data – is 13%. There is a further 13% of crimes which the XYE say are ‘probably’ committed by migrants.

We looked at how XYE decide that each pin on the map represents a crime which could have been committed by migrants. They comb police and media reports and pull out descriptions of perpetrators. We found that almost two-thirds of their reported offenders fell into the categories of “dark-skinned”, “southern-looking”, “foreigner” or “refugee”.

We then selected a random sample of 100 reports within each of these four categories for closer analysis. We found that in nearly all cases where the perpetrator was described as “dark-skinned” or “southern”, there was no evidence in the sources positively identifying them as a migrant or refugee. This was also true of the overwhelming majority of cases where the offender was described as a “foreigner”.

I’m en route to Vancouver, so forgive the brevity of this notice of such an important issue.

Four years ago I described Project THOR (Theatre History of Operations Reports), Lt Col Jenns Robertson‘s remarkable attempt to transcribe, standardise and integrate the available records of US Air Force strike missions – see here (scroll down) and (especially) here.

His databases have now been incorporated into Defense Digital Service‘s, described as ‘an attempt in open defence data’: it’s also an experiment, which invites not only use but interaction and comment.  You can now access the THOR databases – and find the backstory – here.

In 2006, Lt Col Jenns Robertson and his team in the Pentagon faced a daunting task. Every week, the Air Force’s Chief of Staff and other senior military officers would ask for the latest on the air war in Iraq and Afghanistan – how many aircraft had flown that week, which ground units they supported, and what munitions they had dropped.

Working in the Air Force’s Operations Directorate, Robertson had access to a wide array of classified data sources, yet the weekly report was tedious to produce.  Data was not easily searched and often contained only half the picture, forcing Robertson’s team to assemble the report manually every week over the course of several days. He knew there was an easier way.

In his spare time, Robertson began creating the Theater History of Operations Reports (THOR), initially a simple Excel spreadsheet that eventually matured into the largest compilation of releasable U.S. air operations data in existence. Robertson tested his database with his team, asking them to generate the Chief’s weekly report twice — once manually, and again using THOR. The result was impressive: THOR cut the report work from three days to just under an hour.

After receiving Department of Defense approvals, Robertson was able to post THOR files online so interested public citizens could search the data for their own purposes. Robertson understands the vast potential benefits of opening such a large compilation of previously inaccessible data to the public. “I can’t envision all the ways this can be used”.

One of the first (once forbidden) fruits of releasing this data to the public is a remarkable map by Cooper Thomas plotting 3.1 million US bombing and ground attack missions (including Close Air Support and aerial interdiction) in North and South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia between 1966 and 1974:


Cooper promises further explorations of this and other THOR databases; if you know of any others, please let me know [see UPDATE below]. is promising to release a new ‘data story’ each month – next month should see the release of a military casualty database.  The site went live in December 2016, and  Mary Lazzeri and Major Aaron Capizzi explain the background:

Mary:  Major Aaron Capizzi, USAF had the idea to use open data principles to solve Department of Defense (DoD) problems after attending a panel discussion at the Harvard Kennedy School sponsored by former Deputy CTO, Nick Sinai. In addition, I had been looking to seed an open data effort at DoD. Aaron’s idea, coupled with the opportunity to present the Theater History of Operations (THOR) bombing data in a new and interesting way, provided a perfect opportunity to put energy behind the effort.

We’re looking to use this pilot to jumpstart a larger open data effort at DoD. The beta site is a working proof-of-concept. The next step is to show the larger DoD community that open data merits investment.

Aaron: Our approach is unique in two ways. First, will test various ways of sharing defense-related information, gauging public interest and potential value, while protecting security and privacy. We will quickly iterate and improve the data offerings on, using public feedback and internal department discussions to best unlock the value of defense data. Our goal is to provide all data with enough context that users, both the public and defense employees, can understand the potential value and get started using data quickly.

Second, will prioritize opening data using a demand-driven model, focusing on quality rather than standard quantity metrics. The Department of Defense regularly reports on the significant challenges we face in defending the nation, which range from attracting talented recruits to developing game-changing technology within constrained budgets. Most of these aspects of defense business generate large amounts of unclassified data which, if released, can encourage collaboration and innovation with public and private sector partners.

Mary: The site is built using an open data storytelling platform, LiveStories. Rather than simply posting a list of datasets, the goal of is to tell stories with data. The site provides narratives to complement the data so users can more quickly understand and begin using it. LiveStories was selected for its visualization and data analysis features allowing us to present an engaging site for its users. In addition, it’s easy to use. Non-technical staff can use the platform to share their data and tell their stories.

We want to compel collaboration from military components, industry partners and the public. The partnership with enables that collaboration providing the social media tools to support exploration and a community discussion of the data.

Conversely, it’s also worth thinking about how digital platforms are now used to plan and execute air strikes.  As the origins of Project THOR show, there are crucial links between retrospective reporting and prospective mission planning.

UPDATE:  I’ve since discovered this map of Allied bombing raids over Europe in the Second World War by Dimitri Lozeve, also drawn from’s THOR database (click on the link for an enlarged version):

Allied bombing in Europe, 1939-1945

You can zoom in; here are two close-ups:



The map comes without a key; all I know is that the original tabulations include ‘U.S. and Royal Air Force data, as well as some Australian, New Zealand and South African air force mission’ 1939-1945 and refer to tonnages dropped: more discussion here.

On the global scale, Data Is Beautiful has a GIF showing ‘every bomb dropped by Allied forces in World War II); you can view it as a video here, from which I’ve grabbed these screenshots that capture the shift from the European to the Pacific theatre:






Data World‘s Ian Greenleigh has kindly alerted me to a similar treatment of the THOR database for Vietnam by his colleague Mark DiMarco here:

Our point-of-view is from high above the South China Sea, where much of the US Navy fleet was stationed.
By giving the user a bird’s eye view, we can clearly see up and down the Vietnamese peninsula, and the neighboring countries of Laos & Cambodia, and precisely see where these missions took place.
Each frame of the visualization is a single day’s worth of missions. Some days had as many as 1,500 missions, while the records for some days are completely missing.
The colors of each of the circles dictates what type of mission took place.

The GIF is here; screenshot from the interactive:

Vietnam bombing GIF

Remote sensing

Harris BLUE BOOK.img008

As a supplement to my previous post on mapping the bombing of Germany in the Second World War, I thought I should draw attention to Lauren Turner‘s report on the maps RAF Bomber Command had drawn to show the effects of its raids on individual cities.  I described the construction of target maps in ‘Doors into nowhere’ (DOWNLOADS tab); these maps were compiled for the Blue Books kept by Arthur Harris as chief of Bomber Command (above). In the summer of 1943 Harris ordered the preparation of a large book (which eventually extended to several volumes) which would show the “spectacular” results of the bomber offensive. “After each attack on a German city,” he explained, “the area of devastation was progressively marked with blue paint over a mosaic of air photographs of the city as a whole”. Harris was immensely proud of this “inventory of destruction,” as Tami Biddle calls it, and showed it to all his prominent visitors (see also here for a short discussion of how blind Harris was to the strategic significance of his campaign).

Here, for example, is Cologne in November 1944:


The dark blue shows the area destroyed or badly damaged: you can also find more information about the damaged city in my post on the geometry of destruction here (which includes an early target map).

Lauren’s report for the BBC includes similar maps for Berlin and Dresden.

The sound of refugees

Distance from home

Brian Foo is a programmer and visual artist who has been conducting a series of music experiments at Date Driven DJ that combine data, algorithms, and borrowed sounds.  His video below (screenshot above), ‘Distance from home‘, which is also available on vimeo, uses refugee data from the United Nations from 1975 to 2012 to create a truly remarkable audio visualization.

Brian explained that his composition was inspired by The Refugee Project, and that it follows a series of algorithms:

Each year between 1975 and 2012 correlates to a 4-second segment in the song.

The annual global aggregate volume of refugee migration controls the quantity of instruments playing. The higher the volume of refugee migration, the more instruments are added to the song.

The annual average distance of refugee migration controls the duration and pitch of the instruments. Longer distances yield instruments that play longer and lower-pitch notes (e.g. long distances: , short distances: ).

The annual amount of countries with 1000+ refugees control the variety of instruments playing, where the more countries with 1000+ refugees, the more variety of instruments are playing in the song.

Thanks to Jaimie for bringing this project to my attention – which assumes a new significance as so many politicians and commentators foment fear, anger and rejection towards refugees seeking to escape war, misery and violence.  For a counterpoint, try this.