By Ian Davis, MapAction’s Fundraising & Marketing Director
I’m 56, unfit and with the build of the wrong kind of Chippendale (short-legged wooden furniture, not under dressed male dancer). So why on earth am I running the London Marathon?
Because I’m raising money for MapAction, an organisation that enables mapping, GIS and data experts to volunteer their time and expertise to humanitarian emergencies. Yes, I know it sounds a bit geeky but what our volunteers can do makes the difference between vital aid arriving to the people who desperately need it, in time or not. MapAction volunteers sometimes work from home, but they are equally willing to jump on a plane, in the middle of a pandemic, and sit in a sweltering tent in Haiti, Guatemala or anywhere else.
Because, whilst I’ve been grumbling and groaning my way around the highways and byways of Oxfordshire in training, some of our volunteers have been doing just that in support of the response to the recent earthquake in Haiti.
I’ve had my path blocked by the odd deer, dog or heron on my travels, but at least the tarantulas are quiet around Oxfordshire at this time of year, and I don’t worry much about kidnappings or gunfights between armed gangs.
Please remember, by sponsoring me, or any of my fellow runners (see links below), you are really sponsoring the work of our amazing volunteers and this small but very important organisation. By doing it through one of our London Marathon fundraising pages, it’s also really easy to add Gift Aid which makes your donation go even further (and yes, it will make us all feel a little better as we try to complete this epic race).
MapAction is providing mapping and information management support to the La Soufriere volcano emergency on the island of St Vincent, in response to requests from both CDEMA (Caribbean Disasters & Emergency Management Agency) and UN OCHA’s regional office.
Explosive eruptions from La Soufriere since April 9th have caused ash clouds to cover much of St Vincent, Bequia and southern St Lucia, as well large parts of Barbados. Pyroclastic flows have descended from the mountain top, after it was confirmed that the volcanic dome had collapsed.
Monitoring of the volcano is difficult as existing seismic stations were knocked out and it became dangerous to travel into the area. By the 7 of April, circa 16000 residents had been advised to evacuate following early signs of activity. The incident has already caused serious need for shelter, PPE and fresh water and is developing. Flooding is now reportedly compounding the situation.
MapAction is currently supporting the situation remotely, having already assembled a dedicated team of three volunteers and one staff member, located in Montserrat, the Turks & Caicos Islands (both in the Caribbean), New Zealand and the UK respectively. All members of the MapAction team will be working remotely due to the travel and other complications of the COVID-19 pandemic, and there are no current plans to send a geospatial team to the affected area, although two of the team are based in the Caribbean region.
The direct mission costs are being met by the German Federal Foreign Office. MapAction’s response capacity has been supported by UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) and the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and we have been working extensively in the Caribbean region on disaster preparedness work thanks to USAID Bureau of Humanitarian Affairs.
The mapping techniques used in the 3D web mab above are based on recent work by MapAction and the University of Edinburgh, which pioneered 3D interactive webmapping for planning and response to volcanic hazards.
Many of MapAction’s maps and other information products relating to this emergency will be available here as the emergency develops.
Two MapAction members contributed to a one-hour discussion of how use of collaborative networks and advances in geospatial technology can improve humanitarian outcomes in urban settings. Professor Melinda Laituri of Colorado State University and the Secondary Cities initiative was Chair of the event, with talks from Alan Mills and Chris Ewing, both of MapAction.
Entitled Cities, humanitarianism and using geospatial analysis to mitigate risk, the online event looked at collaborative approaches to addressing global humanitarian issues.
Alan Mills and Chris Ewing shared insights gleaned from their work aimed at supporting urban resilience and emergency preparedness and response, in particular through working with, building, supporting and mobilising civil society networks. They also discussed recent technical innovations such as automated mapping.
This was followed by a question and answer session exploring some aspects further as questioned by the audience.
Chris Ewing, MapAction Trustee and Volunteer – a keen physical geographer, Chris has over 10 years’ experience in the (re)insurance and engineering sectors. In his day job at Aon Impact Forecasting, Chris helps organizations better quantify natural catastrophe risk. He has volunteered with MapAction since 2007.
Alan Mills, MapAction Consultant and Volunteer – a volunteer since 2005 and former trustee, Alan also leads on building data preparedness partnerships. He has his own consultancy business specializing in GIS and remote sensing in international development and has 30 years experience in operations.
MapAction teams are in action again, this time providing support to the humanitarian responses to Hurricane Eta in Central America and Tropical Typhoon Goni in South East Asia.
Hurricane Eta – A coordinated team of MapAction GIS volunteers is working remotely in support of UN OCHA’s Regional Office for Latin America and Caribbean (ROLAC) as they coordinate the humanitarian response across Central America in the wake of Hurricane Eta. Over 1.8 million people have been affected across Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Belize.
The team are already delivering mapping support for the immediate aftermath of the hurricane and are preparing to deliver 3W and flood mapping. It is anticipated that further support may also be required with this fast developing situation and we are standing by for requests. You can see the maps and other products produced so far here. You can see further MapAction-aided products on the Reliefweb site.
Hurricane ETA is a Category 4 hurricane that made landfall in Nicaragua on Tuesday Nov 3rd and moved north through Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and then Belize. Eta is now a Tropical Storm and is due to hit Cuba in the next 24 hours. The Central American region has suffered widespread flooding, storm surges and landslides. Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama are under red alerts. Guatemala has also been severely affected. For further situation information see the most recent OCHA needs snapshot and Relief Web update.
MapAction is grateful to the German Federal Foreign Office for supporting our response, as well as to the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the UK FCDO for their continued support of MapAction’s response capacity.
Tropical Cyclone Goni – This typhoon is affecting people across the Philippines and Vietnam. A member of the team is supporting MapAction partner the AHA Centre (ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management) as it coordinates the response. You can see the maps and other products here. You can see further products on the Reliefweb site.
As UN assessment teams make their way to some of the hardest hit areas, a clearer picture of Typhoon Goni’s impact (known locally as Rolly), which made landfall in the Philippines on Sunday, is emerging. The UN OCHA office reported that as of 6 November, around 1.2 million people (more than 312,500 families) across seven regions have been directly impacted by the disaster. “As more than 21,000 homes were destroyed, many families will remain in long-term displacement,” it reported.
What is MapAction’s ‘humanitarian data landscape?’ At MapAction, we’re working to put data at the centre of how we provide products and services to the humanitarian sector. MapAction’s data scientist, Monica Turner, recently posted about the work she does in this new role. However, data is a big (and sometimes loaded) term. So what does ‘data’ mean to MapAction? We asked Hannah Ker, MapAction’s Data Scientist whilst Monica is on maternity leave, to explain.
During a humanitarian crisis, it is vitally important for responders to have information such as which areas are most affected, where vulnerable populations exist and where relevant infrastructure & services (such as healthcare facilities) are located. MapAction provides information products (such as maps) to our partners to help them address these information needs. Unsurprisingly the vast majority of data that we work with at MapAction is geospatial. We aim to use geospatial techniques, such as cartography, to make complex data rapidlly accessible to those responding to humanitarian crises.
The ‘Layers of data’ page (see diagram below) from our Example Product Catalogue provides a useful framework for thinking about how many different datasets are processed and combined into a meaningful final product.
Firstly, we can think of the data that is input to our basemap or initial reference map of a given area. This data often reflects features such as administrative boundaries, land elevation, settlements, and transportation infrastructure. Secondly, we have baseline data that provides demographic information about the area of interest, such as population numbers and numbers of schools.
Our last data layer includes situational information that is relevant to the humanitarian context at hand. The kinds of data relevant for this layer can vary significantly depending on the circumstances. This data is also likely to be the most dynamic and temporally sensitive. For example, it may be used to show change over time as a crisis evolves.
All of this data can come from a variety of sources. The Humanitarian Data Exchange (HDX), developed and maintained by the UN OCHA Centre for Humanitarian Data, is a repository that holds over 17,000 datasets from more than 1,300 different sources. These datasets come from what we might think of as ‘authoritative’ sources of information, such as the World Bank or the World Food Programme.
In particular, MapAction frequently uses the Common Operational Datasets of Administrative Boundaries (COD-AB) that are published and maintained by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). It can be challenging to access complete and up-to-date administrative boundary data, so the CODs attempt to provide standardised, high quality data that can be used to support humanitarian operations.
OpenStreetMap (OSM) also provides a valuable source of geospatial data. This ‘Wikipedia of maps’ is an entirely crowdsourced map of the world. In theory, anyone, anywhere in the world (with an internet connection) can contribute to OSM. At MapAction, we use OSM as a source of data for features such as settlements and transportation infrastructure. MapAction is a partner of the Missing Maps project, hosted by OSM which seeks to crowd source the gaps in maps in available maps.
So why can’t we just use maps that already exist, like Google Maps?, one might ask. Why all these complex data layers? Why spend so much time finding data when it’s already all there?
Platforms such as Google Maps, Waze, and Apple Maps are commonly used as day-to-day navigation tools for people in many parts of the world. However, such existing tools do not provide the flexibility that is often required when managing and presenting geospatial data in humanitarian scenarios. As these tools are privately-developed, individuals and organisations do not always have the ability to manipulate or style the underlying data to suit their needs. These platforms were not created specifically for humanitarian use-cases, and so may not always include the information that meets the operational requirements of humanitarian contexts, such as locations of damaged buildings or the extent of a flood.
OSM’s Humanitarian map style, for example, shows some of the unique data styling that may be required in humanitarian contexts. Moreover, there are many parts of the world with human settlements that are not present (or poorly represented) on existing maps, as is demonstrated by efforts from organisations such as the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team and the Missing Maps initiative. These challenges mean that there is no existing ‘one size fits all’ mapping platform that is capable of providing and presenting all of the information that is needed in humanitarian contexts.
Finding high quality geospatial data is an ongoing challenge for us at MapAction. Geospatial data quality is a multifaceted concept, and includes dimensions such as up-to-dateness, positional accuracy, logical consistency, and completeness. The image below, for example, shows a geometry problem that we often face with administrative boundary data. Notice the gap in the border between Chad and the Central African Republic. Lack of standardisation in this data between different countries and organisations, or out of date data can result in such misalignment. Due to the political sensitivity that is associated with boundary data, it is important to ensure that the data that we use is as accurate as possible.
Our ongoing work around the Moonshot project seeks to develop tools that can help us to automatically detect and address quality issues such as these. Keep an eye out for future blog posts where we will address some of these technical challenges in greater detail.
At the end of the day, we’re working to make complex situations better understood. Humanitarian crises are incredibly complex, and accordingly, can be associated with complex datasets and information. By selecting high quality datasets and visualising them in clear and accessible ways, we intend for our humanitarian partners to be able to make informed decisions and deliver effective aid to those in need.
MapAction’s Data Scientist is funded by the German Federal Foreign Office (GFFO), but the views and opinions above do not necessarily represent those of the GFFO.
Hurricanes Irma and Maria have left a trail of damage and devastation across parts of the Caribbean in the past month.
MapAction were able to respond quickly and in numbers to this crisis, with good local knowledge and networks in the region. So far eight MapAction volunteers have supported the response in the field, with one more team member due to fly out this week. Many others have been supporting the field teams remotely.
MapAction teams have worked in support of the relevant national government disaster management agencies, usually through CDEMA (Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency) and UNDAC (UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination).
The work has required much movement between islands, both to provide GIS support where it was needed and to avoid being caught in the direct path of the hurricanes. MapAction volunteers have been operating in Anguilla, Antigua, Barbados, British Virgin Islands, Dominica, Grand Turk, Haiti, Jamaica and Providenciales.
As of Sept 26th MapAction has three people remaining on Dominica with all others now safely home. With Dominica receiving a direct hit from Category 5 Hurricane Maria MapAction volunteers were amongst the first to arrive, and have been in the midst of the response ever since.
They and MapAction’s other field teams have produced a huge range of maps and data, many of which can be seen at https://maps.mapaction.org/event/irma-easterncaribbean
Several of the MapAction Irma and Maria teams are available to talk to media by arrangement, including some of those still there (depending upon communications and availability). Contact email@example.com or call 01494 568899 and ask for Ian Davis.
MapAction moved quickly on Wednesday to send additional support to the Caribbean region, following the devastating initial impacts of Hurricane Irma. MapAction is now sending teams to both Jamaica and Haiti in addition to the one that traveled to Barbados on Wednesday morning, which is now moving to Antigua.
Each team consists of two highly skilled Disaster Mapping Experts – specialist technical volunteers – aiming to help make the response to this humanitarian emergency as efficient and effective as possible.
The MapAction teams in Haiti and Jamaica will each link with UNDAC (UN Disaster Assessment & Coordination) who have requested MapAction’s support. Our Teams will arrive very well prepared as MapAction assisted in both Haiti and Jamaica in the response to Hurricane Matthew in 2016, and has kept relevant geographical data updated since then.
The National Hurricane Center has called Hurricane Irma the strongest ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean. The impact of Irma on Barbuda and St Martin was described as catastrophic, raising fears for other countries in Irma’s path. MapAction now has six volunteers in the field and is monitoring the situation to see further mapping support is required.