Home News Interactive map of Aleppo helps share information amid the chaos of civil war

Interactive map of Aleppo helps share information amid the chaos of civil war


New data released by the United Nations Institute for Education and Research - Operational Satellite Application Program (UNITAR-UNOSAT) show a strong pattern of destruction when overlaying the zones of territorial control in Aleppo: the damaged locations identified by UNOSAT are mainly inside or outside The outline of the besieged areas in eastern Aleppo confirms that this part of the city was systematically bombed and shelled during the war. View full interactive map

In nearly six years of civil war, the city of Aleppo, Syria's former industrial hub, became the center of a humanitarian disaster and the destruction of one of the world's oldest, culturally rich cities.

As rebels fight government forces and civilians attempt to evacuate the city, a number of international organizations, including the United Nations and UNESCO, seek to preserve the laggards and a global cultural heritage that can be traced back to the 6th millennium BC

Laura Kurgan , Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation , leads such a project, Konfliktst├Ądtebau: Aleppo , which is an evolving, interdisciplinary study of the destruction in the city that gives people - those in the city, those who have fled, and those who are watching from afar - the opportunity to share and see information, what happens on site. As director of the Center for Spatial Research, Kurgan and her team have created an open-source interactive map of Aleppo that combines layers of high-resolution satellite imagery with data collected by human rights organizations and the United Nations.

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They collect data on the physical destruction of the city and data on how urban warfare is remotely tracked and monitored. Users can navigate Aleppo on a neighborhood scale, examine geolocated data on the damage and share their stories.

Kurgan isn't the only Columbia faculty member working on the Syria crisis. The International Heritage Observatory was recently established on Columbia's Italian Academy , and his research fellows from 2016 to 2017 all focus on projects dealing with the preservation and contemporary destruction of art and architecture, for example in places in Iraq and Syria where ISIS has attacked and destroyed structures associated with minority sects of the Islam, Christianity and ancient times are linked cultures.

F. Why did you choose Aleppo?

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TO. It is currently the most important urban conflict, however you look at it: in terms of history, human rights or geopolitics. Aleppo was the largest Syrian city before the war and one of the oldest cities in the world with a diverse cultural and religious heritage. It is at the crossroads of several ancient trade routes and was ruled at times by the Assyrians, Mongols, Ottomans and others. The war will be over and the city will somehow come into being. We hope to be able to show what happened there.

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F. Her work was influenced by the Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin and by Robert Bevan's book, The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War . What influence did they have?

TO. Lemkin's concept of vandalism serves as a motivating justification and theoretical framework for this project. He coined the term genocide during World War II, which was codified in the 1948 United Nations Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. But as we learn in Bevan's book, as early as 1933 Lemkin had genocide in terms of two interrelated concepts: barbarism and vandalism. He understood barbarism primarily as acts of destruction against ethnic, religious or social communities, and vandalism as the systematic and organized destruction of the artistic and cultural heritage. Many buildings and neighborhoods in Aleppo were destroyed during the civil war in Syria. The four satellite images layered into our map tell some of the stories of this ongoing extinction and its multiple consequences - deaths, emigration, and the reorganization of the urban landscape. We hope that these aerial photographs and the research developed to ask questions can be linked to eyewitness and documentary reports (social media is overflowing) for both understanding and reaction to what is happening there .

F. Is the map updated regularly?

TO. Yes. In the spring of 2016, I taught a seminar on Conflict Urbanism: Aleppo, and the map served as a research tool for this class. The students developed case studies specifically aimed at researching urban damage in Aleppo during the civil war and inserted them as layers on the map. Their results covered topics such as water as a weapon of war, inner boundaries between fighting groups, the survival of cities in times of war, escape routes, cultural heritage, communication infrastructure and refugee camps at the borders. Over the summer and fall, we added more datasets and case studies to the project, including drone material published by local activists that offers new perspectives on the destruction.

Satellite image from the Landsat 8 satellite dated June 11, 2016. Areas highlighted in yellow are where this image is much darker or lighter than on the Landsat satellite image captured two weeks earlier. This experimental analysis can help uncover where damage has occurred in the city.

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F. How is the card used?

TO. The map is open source and interactive on a neighborhood scale. With the help of high-resolution satellite images from before and during the current civil war, users can navigate through the city and explore geolocated data on cultural sites, neighborhoods and city damage. We invite employees and students to bring new perspectives and analyzes to the map. It's a timeline of the war - as it unfolded and continues to unfold in Aleppo. What our project brings to this field of conflict observation in real time is a humanities approach. I've long been interested in how people other than professional geographers or cartographers work with maps, and how the world outside of the military and intelligence agencies can use satellite imagery. I've written a book called Up close at a distance: mapping, technology and politics , hence, I have long followed the history of the use of satellite imagery. A card like this one is a platform for storytelling with data. Every time you put a layer of data on top of it, it's like adding another layer of truth, another narrative. That's why I call it multidimensional. It may look flat, and it might look like a top view, but there are actually many different viewpoints embedded in it. So it's one of the few map resources that has this type of timescale built into it.

F. What is it like to work on this map in New York and yet be so familiar with what's going on in Aleppo?

TO. It's complicated, but it's a symptom of our times, isn't it? We are not there and yet we are in constant contact with people in the midst of a disaster and we can see some of what they are going through with shocking clarity. We are just trying to be honest, reliable and vigilant in following what happens. The framework we use is the mapping that we do carefully, critically, and collaboratively - it's a kind of dedicated observation. When you get to know a city as well as we know Aleppo today and witness what has been lost, you can't really remain dispassionate.

Twenty-five quarters with the most damaged sites identified by UNOSAT (as of September 18, 2016)

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