MapAction is a hub of 80 data, geospatial and geography professionals who volunteer as humanitarian mappers for disaster relief. Our new Head of Communications Alex Macbeth shares his views below of a recent training weekend, providing an insight into how and why volunteers at MapAction do what they do.
The GPS points towards a small community hall in a village not far from Oxford. As I approach, a row of wet tents in a field catches my eye. A couple of covered gas canisters outside suggest there has been cooking. Inside the sparsely-adorned hall, about 50 people are sitting on plastic chairs or leaning on pop-up tables.
The breakfast snacks on a table are thrifty: bread, tea, a handful of digestives. Laptop bags and raincoats line the edges of the room, like landmarks parked between the rivers of cables and extension leads. A few well-behaved dogs are roaming around, although it isn’t clear what geospatial credentials any of them have. Laptops are out; all eyes are on the map on the projector.
Lean and green event
I wasn’t sure what to expect at my first MapAction training weekend after recently joining the humanitarian mapping charity as head of communications. Many aid events I have attended or that I have been a part of in the last 10 years in the sector have often had the aesthetics of a high-society gala rather than a community feel. This was less Champagne Sunday, more lean and green.
MapAction, a charity that works alongside UN, regional and civil society disaster relief agencies to map disaster landscapes and strengthen disaster preparedness, holds regular training events for its cohort of nearly 80 volunteers. These events create a platform to simulate disasters and the response expected from MapAction. They also serve as a way for volunteers who have been on deployments or worked on projects to provide feedback to each other, their peers and to the broader team at MapAction. These circular procedures and reviews are fundamental to how MapAction assesses impact. The learnings from these events ultimately get fed back to our InnovationHub, where new tools, projects, approaches and solutions are developed.
Early in 2023, MapAction added 12 new recruits to its volunteer cohort after a diligent and long interview and screening process. They come from an incredible range of fields and work for leading research institutes, businesses and other bodies, including the British Geological Survey, the British Antarctic Survey, Arup, Informed Solutions, the University of St Andrews and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, to mention but a few.
Their skill sets for the job are proven but it is their life experiences that jump out. One is a former National Park ranger in Taiwan; another made maps for an Oscar-winning actor while yet another was himself a child actor on screen. They come from half a dozen countries, including Andorra.
As I drove to the training weekend through endless roundabouts on a particularly rainy Sunday morning, I kept asking myself: why do successful mapping and data professionals give up their time and drag themselves to or across England in late March to camp by a wet community hall for a weekend? The answer was obvious once inside the room.
The shared sense of commitment to humanitarian values was overwhelming. Volunteers don’t bemoan the sacrifice. If there is a personal cost to the work they do with MapAction, they hide it well. Passion brings them time and time again. The sense of passion for being able to support and inform key relief decisions in humanitarian crises is something money cannot buy. That shared sense of community – that shared commitment – was tangible.
The training itself focused on the procedures for mapping in humanitarian situations: naming maps and admin boundary colour schemes, archiving data, different symbology (good to distinguish the humanitarian icon for bacteria from that for bottled water), as well as templates, toolbars and software used by MapAction. There was also a review of MapAction’s recent earthquake response in Turkiye and Syrian Arab Republic.
Many of the 50 or so volunteers in the room were ‘veterans’ of recent deployments: whether it be MapAction’s response to the earthquakes in Turkiye or the team that deployed to Democratic Republic of Congo at Christmas last year in response to floods. Some volunteers professed to having weaker cartography skills than others; others were evidently linguists or experienced project managers. It was easy to see how this combination of skill sets is needed to tailor the right response to a vast range of natural disasters in so many global territories.
And that is really the point. No two disaster responses look the same. For MapAction to be committed to saving lives when disasters strike, this fundamentally generous network of professionals needs to constantly update its skills and training to be on standby to respond. Volunteers outnumber staff by 4 to 1 at MapAction. That prevalence of volunteer spirit is MapAction’s soul; the shared sense of purpose cannot be rivalled with other incentives.
After a brief editorial exercise and an attempt to sign up these awesome women and men to produce content, it was time to pack up and leave. Tables, chairs, cables and projectors were dismantled with clinical efficiency. I couldn’t see them but I suspected even the dogs were trained to do something, like update software or pack away tents.
All said and done, the volunteers returned to different parts of the UK or Europe. One was seen setting off for a major transport hub miles away by bike. With them all went a little more disaster preparedness into the world.