Tracking and Mapping Drone Strikes

The use of unmanned drones may make waging war easier – but that doesn't mean there isn't any accountability.
By: /
November 19, 2012

The use of unmanned drones makes waging war easier. As Peter Singer argued, "When politicians can avoid the political consequences of the condolence letter – and the impact that military casualties have on voters and on the news media – they no longer treat the previously weighty matters of war and peace the same way. 

But that doesn't mean that those politicians can completely curtail the conversation. Drone attacks are now being scrutinized by people around the globe using an array of tools.  Individuals on the ground, as well as organized groups and institutions are combining popular media platforms with satellite imagery in a number of innovative ways. Here are few that we’re tracking:

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism maintains a database of drone attacks,  compiles data from media reports, and charts drone attacks onto an  interactive map. You can also check out their interactive timeline of all reported CIA drone strikes.

In May, 2012 twitter users mapped a drone strike in Yemen. Drone strikes are supposed to be covert, but civilians in Yemen were able to use social media to draw public attention to this attack. Individuals continue to assist in the recording and mapping of these strikes, proving that even in a country where web use is as low as two per cent, the ability to share information online can make a big difference. 

Some individuals are seeking to test the boundaries of this kind of assistance: Josh Begley, New York-based app developer, created an app that aggregates the Bureau's data on drone strikes and sends users a push notification whenever there is a new report of a drone strike. Apple has rejected the Drone+ app three times, and continually blocked it from the App store on grounds that the content is 'objectionable and crude'.

This has sparked debate on the ethics of delivering information straight to users' on a so-called covert  program. The app in question does not display macabre images of corpses or casualties of drone strikes, but the rationale for Apple’s objections (at least at first) was the supposed questionable  functionality of the app. Upon a second submission, questions over the content were raised. Begley states that he was simply trying to advance the discourse on drones and thought "reaching into the pockets of U.S. smartphone users and annoying them into drone-consciousness could be an interesting way to surface the conversation a bit more.”

James Bridle is a U.K.-based writer who is also helping to mainstream the drone discourse, intentionally or not. Bridle became curious as to what drone strikes actually look like. So he looked them up on Google Maps and republished the locations (published by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism )through his Instagram account, Dronestagram. You can find his Tumblr blog here.

The public's interest and capability in tracking drone strikes is likely only to increase as the Obama administration continues to avoid a more frank debate of the drone program, in particular, how it is being implemented in Pakistan. 

So we'll keep watching the drone-watchers and their near-daily innovations, but we're also going to be tracking this over the longer term, because there are no quick solutions to dilemmas relating to if, when, and how to publicly share information about a covert program.