The South Asia Channel

Visualizing violence

Visualizing violence

Afghanistan is one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists. Hostile conditions for journalists not only limit media freedom, they also threaten international development efforts and the strength of civil society in general. Together with Internews, an international media development organization, we at Development Seed mapped the conditions on the ground that journalists face in an effort to highlight the issue and better inform journalists on the situation in Afghanistan. The results can be found at

Working with the data

Over the past ten years, Nai, an Afghan media advocacy organization, has collected reports on incidents in the country by gathering them through local media reports, interviews with colleagues in the media, and firsthand knowledge of incidents. Working with Nai and our partner, Internews, we opened up this data — which previously sat in private spreadsheets — and mapped it, making both the data itself both publicly available and browsable.

The initial map shows aggregate data on violence over the past ten years. Users can then dig down into the data to see incidents by year and province. Through interactive graphs, more contextual information is provided, such as the number of journalists operating in a province, overall security incidents in a province, and a safety index provided by Nai.

To ensure the sustainability of the data management and facilitate collaboration between members of Nai’s team, we created a private Google Docs Spreadsheet that Nai will use to update data on incidents and which will then power the open data site. In the spreadsheet we created validation mechanisms for key pieces of data — province names, for example — and used a script (freely available on GitHub) that takes city names as inputs and outputs geographic coordinates, allowing Nai to automate this step of the process. This script also exports spreadsheets to GeoJSON, a file format compatible with our open source map design studio, TileMill, making it quick and easy for Nai to update both their spreadsheet and the site when there are new incidents.

Making open data useable

Two secondary goals with the site were to make sure journalists in Afghanistan could fully use it, and that the maps and data could be widely shared. We built automatic bandwidth detection into the site to determine the speed of visitors’ connections and dynamically adjust the size of the map files, improving the browsing experience for users in low bandwidth environments. To facilitate sharing, we included an embed feature that allows users to copy a code snippet — just like on — to embed the interactive map on any website. Along the same lines, a CSV file of all the data is available for visitors to download from the site and reuse in any way.


Open source for sustainability

Open source tools help the sustainability of projects like this by empowering local partners — like Nai — to manage the technology long after a funding contract expires. This site was built entirely with open source tools. The maps were designed using our open source map design studio, TileMill. The site itself uses only HTML, CSS, and Javascript, and leverages Wax, a collection of tools that make it easy to publish custom maps.

You can check out the site and explore all of these features at

Paul Goodman is an analyst with Development Seed, working on open data and mapping projects. He is also a  Master’s student at the University of California, Berkeley, studying technology-enabled international development and social enterprise.