Mapping Human Rights Abuse

Marena Brinkhurst


The Rohingya crisis gripped the news in August 2017, when Myanmar security forces escalated a campaign of violence that forced over 702,000 Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh. For nine months, Amnesty International documented human rights violations, both on the ground and remotely. Shortly after, the International Criminal Court (ICC) decided to open a preliminary investigation into the forced deportations and atrocities committed by Myanmar’s military.

I asked Dan Miller and Akshay Mehra of SITU Research to share how they worked with Amnesty and utilized Mapbox’s platform to turn a massive catalog of evidence into a poignant and striking interactive map-based experience.This unique packaging of satellite imagery and spatial data combined with on-the-ground reporting and information gathering raises the bar for visual storytelling. While these events happened a world away for most viewers, the map brings them into visceral focus. It has generated thousands of interactions to date, highlighting its success in bringing greater awareness to these crimes against humanity for viewers located near the crimes themselves, as a large amount viewed the map from Myanmar, and from afar.

Experience it for yourself at:

Interactive map showing the burned remains of Rohingya homes, markets, and mosques

Tell me about what you’ve built with Amnesty International.

Amnesty International’s Crisis Response program has conducted intensive research and monitoring since the beginning of recent violence against the Rohingya in Rakhine State. They’ve collected over 400 interviews — as well as corroborating evidence including satellite imagery, verified photographs and videos, and expert forensic and weapons analysis. The full report records all this evidence in detail, for potential use in investigation and prosecution of crimes against humanity.

Alongside the report, Amnesty wanted to create a platform to help a wider audience engage with the evidence. The map-based narrative takes users on an interactive journey through the weeks leading up to the violence in August 2017, through the military’s deployment and commission of atrocities, the subsequent flight of Rohingya villagers to Bangladesh, and recent construction on top of destroyed Rohingya villages.

“The explosion of violence — including murder, rape, torture, burning, and forced starvation — perpetrated by Myanmar’s security forces in villages across northern Rakhine State was not the action of rogue soldiers or units. There is a mountain of evidence that this was part of a highly orchestrated, systematic attack on the Rohingya population.” 
— Matthew Wells, Senior Crisis Adviser at Amnesty International

 Why did you decide to augment a human rights report with an interactive map?

At SITU Research we help human rights organizations use innovative spatial tools and methodologies. We often use maps to highlight the importance of spatial context and help situate evidence like testimonies, videos, and photos — like an archive that connects evidence. For this project, we had to knit together an eight month long story that spans multiple locations, multiple geographic scales, and a variety of forms of evidence. The map facilitates that synthesis and helps to make sense of it all.

This project, more than others we’ve done, is map-based because satellite imagery is such a core part of the evidence that Amnesty International collected — it shows the burning of villages, and the rapid construction of new military bases, mines, and roads on top of some of the village sites. We needed to use mapping methods to center that imagery in context and help explain what it shows.

You’ve made maps before, why did you choose to use Mapbox this time?

For other projects we’ve done a lot from scratch — setting up our own tile server and backend, converting between different formats — and it gets complex fast. We knew this project was going to have a ton of raster imagery to work with, so we wanted to try using Mapbox as a way to streamline our existing tools and make something lightweight and ultra-seamless. That way, we could focus on the other vector animations and interactivity that we wanted.

We were on a tight timeline with the Amnesty team regularly updating their data as we went. So we liked how the Mapbox Studio Dataset Editor could help us stay on top of these changes. Pretty much anywhere we have interactivity, or customs labels or annotations, we used the Dataset Editor to create the GeoJSON files we needed. And it was great how we could change the background map and annotate on top of it, even dragging in other datasets to make sure things lined up — like our brackets around the village locations.

Village locations annotated using Mapbox Studio Dataset Editor

How did you decide on the design of the map?

Since satellite imagery on a specific date is an important part of this narrative, we used a neutral basemap that was distinct from the imagery clips but still represented the broader landscape. That way, when you get to the moments where the exact date and location are very important that imagery stands out as discrete and intentional. To achieve this effect, we used Mapbox Satellite for the basemap, but we desaturated it to take out all the color. Then we added terrain on top to illustrate the mountainous landscape that the refugees had to travel through. We also included some simple layers for boundaries and water, but because data for this part of Myanmar is extremely limited, we had to be thoughtful of what we included.

What was the user experience you wanted to create?

We didn’t want the map to feel like a click-through presentation. Part of the innovation in this project was figuring out how to effectively combine a linear narrative with open-ended exploration. The interactivity helps connect all the pieces of the story, which is vital for communicating a series of events that happened across different and overlapping locations. So you can zoom in and out and move around within the map, and you can move forward and backward through the timeline. We’re inviting people to investigate this collection of spatial and visual assets thoroughly.

The map is there to provide spatial context and understanding of the connections between points in the narrative, while also providing some continuity of experience as you follow the story of the people who were displaced. We didn’t want the map to get in the way, so sometimes less was more.

How was the technical experience of building out this map?

Our team has done a few of these types of sites, with Amnesty and other organizations, and this is the most polished. It’s been great to bring together all these components into a single static page and not have to stress about how to streamline the backend. We can just let Mapbox handle that and focus on things that allow us to create something super unique — like our basemap layering or our chained animation that follows the refugees’ path over the mountains.

Snapshot of chained animation showing the path of refugees crossing the mountains

We also really appreciated how some core components were ready-to-use. For example, we’ve struggled with creating before-after sliders from scratch in the past, so it was great to drop in an existing library and have it work exactly as we’d mocked it up. The sliders are crucial to this project, so not needing to work on something simple like that gave us time to focus on more custom development pieces.

Screenshot of a map featuring the before-after slider

Do you have any advice for other organizations that want to create maps like this?

If you are collaborating across teams, especially ones that have very different workflows like crisis response and web development, it helps to have people who can speak the same language. A member of Amnesty’s Crisis Response program has experience working with satellite imagery and spatial data, and this made such a difference because they could help translate between our two teams.

The tools you choose are also critical. Designing a map like this requires you to work very iteratively. Choose tools that help you to work that way — ones that let you make changes right up to launch. And use as many off-the-shelf tools as possible — getting lost in the weeds of custom development challenges can be limiting.

SITU Research sounds like a fantastic team to work with — what’s next for you?

We definitely want to continue exploring how to use Mapbox, in particular for making maps that work both online and offline. We work on a lot of projects that are destined for the courtroom, to be used as spatial and visual evidence in legal cases, which usually requires that they work entirely offline. But many of our collaborators also want to be able to share these maps publicly once the case is submitted. And we want to find ways to make our sites accessible across our global audiences where there’s significant disparity regarding connectivity and hardware.


Marena Brinkhurst is a community team program manager at Mapbox.

This interview was originally published June 28, 2018 on Mapbox’s blog and was customized for the BayGeo Journal with permission.

Fall 2018 Volume 11 Issue 2

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