Thousands of miles from the bloodshed in Syria, Robert Cross works at his computer in his home an hour west of Toronto gathering information from online and on-the-ground sources to chart the progress of the combatants.
A 33-year-old neuroscientist, Cross has become an unlikely source of expertise about the civil war, the result of a consuming passion for making and collecting maps. The digital maps that he creates in his spare time are followed, shared and tweeted by a global audience.
“It’s an enormous amount of time to put in to get anything done, sadly, and it's quite a commitment,” Cross said. “I would say I’ve spent at least a couple thousand hours on it, researching, talking to people in Syria over Twitter and other sources.”
Cross is part of a community of digital mapmakers, numbering at least 20, who are tracking the conflict’s shifting geography. These maps have emerged as a critical storytelling device to help the world keep up with the constantly shifting battle lines.
It’s another example of how the reach of the Internet and social media have allowed amateurs from far-flung reaches of the globe to pivot from enthusiastic hobbyists to respected pundits. Their emergence has challenged, and in some cases even supplanted the influence of traditional media organizations.
But these Cartographers 2.0 are also discovering that the attention brings increased expectations and criticism. Sometimes it comes from each other, sometimes from supporters of the different factions. It’s not easy to balance the pressure to deliver updates with the desire to be accurate and fair.
“Reliability is always the biggest problem,” Cross said. “It's still always risky making a call that thousands of people or more are going to take as truth.”
The rise of these next-generation mapmakers comes as many news organizations around the world are reducing their commitment to foreign coverage. And reporting from conflict zones remains as dangerous as ever. According to Reporters Without Borders, 50 journalists and 142 citizen journalists have been killed in Syria since 2011. The lack of on-the-ground coverage by journalists leaves an information gap that is being filled by these digitally savvy mapmakers.
Generally, they divide into four main groups: neutral, pro-government, pro-Kurds, or pro-rebels. Some pro-ISIS mapmakers have emerged, and some factions on the ground now publish their own maps. A few members of this global mapmaking community operate from Syria or neighboring countries.
Archicivilians, a 23-year-old engineer who prefers to remain anonymous to keep his online analysis separate from his personal life, works from one of Syria’s neighboring countries. This fan of historical wars and battles started making digital conflict maps in April 2014, he said, to have “a clear view of the geopolitical changes through the ongoing conflicts in Syria, Libya and Yemen.”
Most mapmakers are Westerners working in Europe, North America and Australia, although some emerged more recently in Russia after it began to play a bigger role in the conflict.
Thomas van Linge, 19, is the youngest and among the most prominent with more than 29,000 followers on Twitter. Living near Amsterdam, he was in high school when he started to study the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011. He drew his first map in January 2014, like Archicivilians, to have a better view of the situation in Syria.
“When I began, maps were too simple and had poor quality,” he said. “They didn’t show the complexity of the situation on the ground. So I made my own map.”
Although his maps are recognized for their accuracy, Van Linge also describes himself as an activist supporting the cause of the Syrian rebellion.
Many other mapmakers insist they are neutral. That includes Emmanuel Pene, who publishes maps under the name “Agathocle de Syracuse,” a tribute to an ancient Greek ruler and military strategist.
Living in southwest France, the 43-year-old French entrepreneur has launched several startups in France and China over the years. Fascinated by maps since he was a teenager, he began drawing maps of the Soviet Union to understand the country and its impact on geopolitics. In June 2014, he turned that passion toward the Syrian conflict and began producing some of the most highly detailed maps, which have won a following across the different factions in the Syrian civil war.
“I wanted to do honest and very precise maps of Syria,” he said. “Mine aren’t biased by ideological positions. I am neither pro-regime, nor pro-rebels or Kurds. I try to act as an honest historian.”
Before most of these mapmakers entered the fray, however, there was Cross. At the age of six, Cross discovered the maps in National Geographic and began saving them. That was the start of his cartography hobby. For years, he has collected both real and fantasy maps.
Although he chose a career in medicine and science, Cross’s interest in maps remained strong. He felt maps were a great way to display complex sets of data, and he started creating some using information from sources such as U.N. Human Development Reports. In particular, he was interested in exploring how growing education levels predict when a population might push for regime change.
“I found that Libya was rapidly approaching the range of time when its populace should theoretically force a switch in government type,” Cross said. “So when the Arab Spring revolutions hit, I immediately wanted to follow Libya.”
At the start of the Libyan civil war in 2011, he kept up with news reports on TV and online of insurgents trying to overthrow Col. Muammar Qaddafi, but he found himself frustrated at the lack of English-language maps charting the conflict in real-time. So, he decided to make his own, and he posted them online.
To reassure his wife, he made the maps under the name of Karybdis, a pseudonym based on the Greek sea monster Charybdis, which he had used in various online forums for years. “I use it as an alias out of habit mainly because I have a family, and some of the people I deal with, like ISIS, have questionable world views,” he explained.
By 2012, he turned toward Syria, where his sympathies initially lay with the rebel groups trying to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Over time, as the conflict became more muddled, so did Cross’s views. He strives now for a balanced approach, and he’s proud his maps are shared by people whose sympathies lie with different sides.
“It’s very difficult to keep a neutral and objective point of view,” Cross said. “At first, I supported the demonstrators. My maps were obviously pro-rebel biased because I wasn’t very experienced with journalism. Now I'm trying to apply journalistic standards. Every side except the Syrian Army has people who use my maps occasionally.”
As with the others mapmakers, Cross mines a wide range of online sources, including news sites, Twitter, and YouTube videos posted by participants in battles. He also developed a network of about 10 correspondents in the conflict zone that he contacts either through acquaintances or via Twitter. Those sources help him verify information directly.
Other mapmakers find Syrian sources on Facebook and Skype, tap Middle Eastern news agencies, follow Wikipedia where related pages are constantly being updated, and closely monitor a page on Reddit about the conflict in Syria.
A simple image posted to social media is often the start of the detective work. For instance, the various factions regularly post pictures of their fighters entering a town. The mapmakers look for clues, such as buildings or streets, and try to match them with satellite images to pinpoint locations.
Once this information is gathered, the maps are made with different tools, such as Paint, Photoshop, Wikimapia, Google Maps or OpenStreetMap. Some mapmakers have their own websites, where they post maps and analyses, while others share their images solely on social media.
“The hardest parts are stitching together the canvas out of a bunch of separate images, finding the names of villages, and trying to find out which sources are reliable,” Cross said.
The task is laborious and time-consuming. Cross can spend three to four hours per day researching information for the maps. After exhausting weeks of studying sometimes gruesome images of the conflict, he has had to take breaks from the mapmaking. At other times, demands of his day job forced him to also step back.
As more mapmakers emerged in 2014, the competition has grown fierce and even heated at times as rivals criticized each other or challenged their accuracy.
Franck Bulinge, an intelligence specialist and lecturer at the University of Toulon in southeast France, noted it can be difficult for the average person to know which mapmakers are the most reliable and which are biased by their political leanings.
“We cannot be sure of anything with their work,” Bulinge said. “Because the mapmakers have empathy with their subjects, it’s hard to know the reliability of their sources.”
To address concerns about transparency and reputation, Cross reached out to several mapmaking colleagues in August 2015 to form the Institute for United Conflict Analysts. With eight members so far, the IUCA works collaboratively to share information and mapmaking tips, check maps for accuracy, and set standards for reliability and transparency.
The group draws its members from mapmakers who are neutral as well as those that support pro-Kurd and pro-rebel factions. Cross publishes his maps on this group’s Twitter and Facebook accounts. He hopes that working together will improve accuracy, but also increase the legitimacy of their work in the eyes of an even bigger audience.
“An organization is more trustworthy than people working under aliases,” Cross said. “I’m trying to apply journalistic standards lately. But it’s very difficult trying to stay viewpoint neutral on topics like the war, isn't it? I never realized until now.”
All of these efforts by these insurgent mapmakers have now come full circle, in a sense.
Recently one of France’s largest major newspapers, Le Monde, decided it wanted to expand its use of maps to help explain the Middle Eastern conflicts, but lacked the necessary resources, according to Le Monde journalist Pierre Breteau. So in January, it created an animated map based on the work of Van Linge and The Institute for the Study of War.
That caught the attention of the mapmaking community. In applauding the work, Pene couldn’t help making a subtle jab at a major news outlet by tweeting: “Le Monde ends 5 years of poor cartography about Syria-Iraq.”
The following is a list of some mapmakers who chart the Syrian conflict. The categories reflect the factions their maps tend to cover the most.
Cédric Labrousse: https://twitter.com/Syria_Rebel_Obs
Thomas van Linge: https://twitter.com/arabthomness
Julian Roepcke: https://twitter.com/julianroepcke
Peto Lucem: https://twitter.com/PetoLucem
Islamic World News: https://twitter.com/A7_Mirza
SAA Reporter: https://twitter.com/Syria_Protector
Ivan Sidorenko: https://twitter.com/IvanSidorenko1
Amitiés kurdes de Bretagne: https://twitter.com/AmKurBret
Mark Monmonier: https://twitter.com/MarkMonmonier
Chuck Pfarrer: https://twitter.com/ChuckPfarrer
Hans Scholl: https://twitter.com/ver_scholl_en
Res Publica: https://twitter.com/_paulo34
Emmanuel Pene: https://twitter.com/deSyracuse
Le Carabinier: https://twitter.com/LCarabinier
Nathan Ruser: https://twitter.com/Nrg8000
Syrian Civil War Map: https://twitter.com/CivilWarMap