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GIS In The News: Mapping the Population Distribution of Syrian Refugees and its Useful Applications Scott Yehl

Scott Yehl

When analyzing a map, it is important to understand the motivation behind its making. Several key motivational factors for utilizing GIS in regard to Syrian refugee populations should validate the necessity of this maps creation: What was the problem that needed addressing and why is it important? In the wake of the ongoing civil war conflict ravaging the Syrian landscape, many inhabitants of the country have fled across the border seeking refuge. As of September 3rd, 2013, the estimated number of Syrian refugees has exceeded 2 million. The sheer magnitude of displaced people is already stressing Syrias neighboring nations, who are having difficulty funding refugee sustenance. Why was a spatial solution required? The most important data concerning Syrian refugees is where the refugees are getting displaced to. Mass migration is an inherently spatial phenomenon, and so it is important to spatially visualize the dispersion of refugees as they flee war-torn regions. Based on where the refugees are heading or depending on how many refugees are headed there, a map can give good insight into data that is otherwise not visually and spatially represented. Methods The base-maps of this projection are tiled and cached to increase the maps versatility. The interactive platform the map maker uses to get information to the map viewer includes clicking for attribute data pop ups, selecting different map layers for the projection, and interactive options surrounding the map itself, outside its projection. It was certainly created using a GIS. Understanding the methodology behind the creation of this projection can actually be kinetically experienced through people with ArcMap. This link is a map of the same UN data, projected using the same technique through ArcGIS: Data Sources and method of data acquisition: The UN Refugee Agency, based on available data collected from Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan. Additional maps, updates, statistics, reports and assessments are copiously available on the map page. A complete catalog of data partners in league with the UN is also given. An article about the United Nations program called REACH (a group that coordinates approaches to UN data collection, including GIS, and provides resources to operationalize data collection efforts in crisis situations) is linked here: The data collection method is a massive undertaking that requires international cooperation, and aggregation of the acquired data requires professionals. The source referenced by the map in its downloadable data is, which is the URL of the UNs interagency sharing portal between the cataloged partners.

Base Map The default base-map called the UNHCR Mapbox is well selected for this particular projection. It denotes the political boundaries of each nation, which is of foremost importance for conveying data about border related occurrences. The base-map is additionally useful in its denotation of general topographic information. Political boundaries are not the only boundaries faced by refugees. Mountain ranges, swaths of arid land and other naturally occurring obstacles are represented in the physical geographic attributes of this base-map. This is important information in relation to understanding the flow of travel out of the nation. Despite all of these wonderful UNHCR Mapbox base-map features, it is not the only one that can be utilized. The interactive map gives two other options upon which the data projection may sit: Google Hybrid and Open Street Maps.

Results This interactive map is very useful in relation to its intended audience, which is presumably comprised of average people with internet capability attempting to garner information about the magnitude of refugee populations and their distribution patterns on a national political scale. These two dataset attributes are clearly and simply projected on the map, either by a proportional or graduated symbolization of the data in red circles. There are two other map attributes by which the refugee population can be seen in its distribution: population by region and population by settlement. Though there are certainly other countries that are handling displaced peoples, the five most heavily effected nations are all that is shown, presumably to preserve contrast between the red circle symbols. This gives an immediate understanding of which countries are being effected most out of the five. The projection is extremely user friendly, and thus is appropriate for the large scale, general media that a typical person would subscribe to. The simplicity of the map gives an insightful visual depiction of very specific attributes, displaying them starkly, with no other forms of data projected. This is almost certainly an intended aesthetic choice made by the map author for a desired effect on the map user. Additional data is easily gathered for those who wish to delve more deeply into the refugee issue. One can delve into the various interactions the projection provides. The projection also gives the option of viewing the map in French (the second most utilized internet language) and Arabic, the latter an option most likely due to the direct effects Arabic speaking countries are feeling from the refugee influx.

The map is interactive. When scrolling over one of the representative symbols for refugee populations, exact numerical values are displayed. When this symbol is clicked, the map zooms in, from the national symbol level to more specific distributions of refugees within the country itself:

The interactive abilities of this map provides the user with the option of a more involved evaluation of the spatial phenomena occurring at these sites. This interactivity is not limited to the projection itself: the graph depicting the rise of Syrian refugees over time can be toggled to obtain specific data points, allowing for easy comparisons with other events that might have a correlation with time. Because of the projections interactive nature, a traditional key is unnecessary. There are some negative aspects to this map projection. One is the small window size through which the map can be viewed. One could argue that a larger window is unnecessary, as all of the symbolized nations can fit within it without loss of important information. This map, however, is intended for a less geographically inclined audience, and the context of the geographic region being projected is not given; that is to say, the geographic proximity of other nations in relation to this phenomenon is not immediately identified. The zooming tool does allow for contextualization, yet when zoomed out to a global level, the sizes of the projected symbols do not adjust with the adjustment of scale. The symbols overlap and the data is no longer clearly presented:

Of course, this is a very minor fault. A symbol can still be differentiated by simply moving the cursor within its boundaries, highlighting it and providing the user with statistics about it. A more poignant negative of the map is the inability to add or subtract attributes of the map. This map would be more useful if the amount of countries depicted was broadened beyond the five nations symbolized. Integration of relief effort data could also be implemented. The question of the map user that goes unanswered by this projection is the refugee distribution in relation to the displaced populations regions of origin. An improved spatial distribution would result, and the data portrayed through it would have more useful applications. There are many examples of the new applications this projection would have: a statistical and spatial analysis would yield insight into which locations are most ideal for setting up refugee camps, and the size of the camps (tied into the funding necessary to sustain it) could be planned accordingly. The distribution of refugee origin could also give insight into the regions of Syria that are most directly affecting civilian populations. The same article provided earlier gives good insight on how GIS can be used as a planning and coordination tool is linked again here: The creation of this map required a great deal of data collection and innovative aggregation techniques. The complete list of partners in the UN data collection process and mash up of various datasets can be seen here: There are many other examples of how GIS benefits the current situation of Syrian displacement and its implications. The world health organization of the United Nations has a massive .pdf detailing the Syria Regional Response Plan that meticulously details the actions each country is taking to harbor the Syrian refugees, linked here:

The plan utilizes GIS mapping throughout, usually used in each countrys overview to help visualize the plan spatially. This is a map of the Lebanon response plan for Syrian refugees:

The map is very well done and is extremely informative. Unlike the interactive map, this one is more for an audience with a vested interest in the detailed distribution of refugees. Government officials in charge of putting the relief plan into action would find the information and geospatial preciseness of the refugee concentrations this projection yields useful for their needs.

This final example of GISs recent usefulness in assessing and aiding the displaced population of Syria is another map created by UNITAR displaying the housing distribution of a refugee camp in Jordan over time, showing the areas of growth over a 17 day period. The projection is likely not intended for the majority of those inclined to more general media. It is specific in application and relatively small on a global implications kind of scale. A link to a larger image to examine the fine print of the map is here: