Responding to the Volcanic Eruption in St Vincent and the Grenadines

By Lavern Ryan, MapAction volunteer.

Selfie of Lavern Ryan outdoors with sea visible in the distance behind her

“Alert Check: Volcanic Eruption St Vincent and the Grenadines, please sign up your availability.” Those were the words which greeted me as I checked my MapAction email. Simple words, but so profound for me. They really hit hard, and hit home! I could not ignore that call for action. I signed up for remote deployment. It turned out to be my first official response deployment as a MapActioner!

Like many people within the region, I have been observing the volcanic dome growth in St Vincent and the Grenadines since late 2020. As it grew, magma continued to fill the space around the old 1979 dome, as depicted in the images below.

aerial photo with annotation showing growth of magma dome on 11 dates between 27 Dec 2020 and 12 Feb 2021
Source: Scientific Resource Centre
aerial photo of La Soufriere volcano showing dome on 6 Jan 2021
Photo credit: NEMO, St. Vincent and the Grenadines
aerial photo of greatly enlarged magma dome with gases escaping
Photo credit: NEMO, St. Vincent and the Grenadines

A period of elevated volcano-tectonic (VT) earthquakes, which began on 23rd March, 2021, indicated to scientists that the situation at La Soufrière had deteriorated. An evacuation order was issued on April 8, 2021 by Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves.

The very next day, on April 9, 2021, La Soufrière Volcano erupted! The eruption was very visible to people around the world due to the prominence of posts on social media. It was easy to see live feeds and video posts as the action unfolded. Images of the massive mushroom plume created by the eruption brought back so many memories for me. It was beautifully dangerous!

photo of very large and impressive gas plume

Having experienced the eruption of our very own Soufrière Hills Volcano in Montserrat and having lived with an active volcano for the past two decades, I empathised with the residents of St Vincent and the Grenadines. Being displaced from one’s home to live in a shelter is no easy feat. Having to leave behind the beloved island you call home is even more challenging. I knew the road ahead for many people would be long and difficult. Hence my conviction to help in the best way I knew: – by providing geospatial support.

It was great news to discover that Mike was also selected as a member of this remote deployment team for the St. Vincent Response. Mike and I were recruited at the same time in 2019 to form part of the Caribbean Section of MapAction. The picture below is a throw-back to June 2019 in Trinidad. We had several days of intense conversion training sessions. In retrospect, those days really set the foundation for our ability to deliver during this response.

Our team was led by Matt who resides in New Zealand. He is very knowledgeable and has significant experience in deployments. We also received additional support from another volunteer, Pip, who is located in the UK. We supported the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA) for a period of three weeks. Subsequently, another two volunteers, Ant and Jorge, were deployed to support the environmental work of the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) response. We represented different time zones and locations from across the globe.

map of the world showing locations of team members working for CDEMA and  United Nations Environment Programme and the La Soufriere volcano

This unique team selection, worked out very well, as it offered 24 hour coverage for the St. Vincent response. Mike and I, being located in the Caribbean region, were uniquely placed to attend briefing meetings in our local time zone and follow up with any new developments; while Matt provided another level of support from New Zealand, as his day began when ours was coming to an end. No sleep lost – I guess! Our daily briefing meetings allowed us to report our findings during that day and to strategise the allocation and completion of tasks.

MapAction has mastered the ability to use different tools to share and work together in a remote working environment. In my opinion, the COVID-19 pandemic has only strengthened this area. The image below highlights some of the main tools we used to ensure smooth deployment coordination.

logos, names and applications of different tech tools:
Jira - task management
Slack - internal comms
Google File Stream - file storage and sharing (streaming)
Gmail - external comms and sitreps
Confluence - rolling documentation specific to the response and SOPs (standard operating procedures)

One of the major needs of any emergency response is geospatial data. The ‘data scramble‘ as the term is coined, involves the researching, collating and organising of all the spatial data available for a particular location, ensuring that it is fit for purpose. The data collected was prepared by transforming it into the correct projected coordinate system to allow for overlay and integration between different datasets. Datasets included administrative boundaries, such as parishes, census districts, shelter locations, elevation data, transportation networks, buildings, land use, hazard zones, and health centres, just to name a few. These were placed in appropriately themed folder locations so that it would be easy for deployed members to find them during the response.

Coordinating with CDEMA, MapAction provided mapping support to to aid in visualisation of the situation on the ground.

One of the first maps prepared is a reference map of the area. I consider this to be one of the most important maps to be prepared, as it gives context to the area of interest. Everything else is built upon this.

The basemap shown on the left below is detailed with settlement locations, roads, parishes, village names, rivers and elevation data. The baseline map sown on the right, highlights the population figures of St.Vincent derived from the most recent 2012 census survey. This allowed us to understand how the population is distributed throughout the affected areas.

To provide further understanding, situational maps were prepared. Data being shared through situation reports from the Emergency Management Agency allowed us to create visual representations of what was happening on the ground. The map on the left, shows movement of displaced people from affected communities in the red, orange and yellow zones. The map on the right shows the location and status of the shelters.

Additionally, a 3D webmap was created showing the key volcanic events and hazards of the La Soufrière volcano. This dynamic map allows you to explore the data which was used to create the maps above and offers a better understanding of the risk posed by the volcanic eruption in St. Vincent.

3D webmap showing volcanic hazards

Working so closely with the data from St. Vincent during this period of time, allowed me to become very familiar with areas and village locations on the island. Seeing feeds on social media allowed me to identify quickly with where things were happening. Names such as as Chateaubelair, Troumaca, Byera, Owia and Fancy stood out to me!

During my remote deployment, some acronyms were mentioned frequently during our briefing meetings. I eventually got the hang of them! These all form part of the response mechanism which helps the crisis on the ground to be addressed. Each of the teams highlighted below, played a very important function in being able to get supplies into St. Vincent, assessing the needs of the population and understanding the impact of the disaster on the island.

Table of humanitarian acronyms and their meanings:
ACRONYM	DESCRIPTION
CDRU	CARICOM Disaster Relief Unit
COST	CARICOM Operations Support Team
DART	Disaster Assessment Response Team
RCC	Regional Coordination Centre
RNAT	Rapid Needs Assessment Team
SRC	Seismic Research Centre
UNDAC	United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination

A number of other international organisations responded to the crisis in St Vincent and the Grenadines by activating their disaster response mechanisms and programmes. The links below provide additional insight into their response activities.

  1. Copernicus Emergency Management Service
  2. The International Charter Space and Major Disasters
  3. Maxar: Open Data Program
  4. Nasa Disaster Program

Satellite images like the ones below were captured as time progressed and further mapping and analysis was carried out. Derived information proved useful to responders on the ground.

satellite image of the Owia Bay area
satellite image of the Rabacca Bridge and Chatoya National Park

MapAction is known to respond in-person during an emergency response deployment. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has limited this, my experience through this remote response deployment has shown that MapAction’s involvement is still significant in providing geospatial information to support the humanitarian needs of people in crisis. I do look forward to future deployments with MapAction!

Lavern in the back of a truck driving through a rural tropical location, wearing a MapAction teeshirt with a large logo on her back.

This article was first published on Lavern’s own blog on 24 May 2021.

Training moves online for emergency responders in Central Asia

GIF showing process of selecting a map layer

During April and May, MapAction is providing online training in mapping and data tools and techniques to emergency responders in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.

This is part of an ongoing programme of work with the Central Asian Center for Emergency Situations & Disaster Risk Reduction (CESDRR) to improve and expand disaster preparedness, relief and recovery activities across Central Asia through mapping and information management. The learning is being used, among other things, to support search and rescue operations and document regular situational overviews of emergencies, enabling more effective responses.

CESDRR logo banner

Earlier this month, around 40 participants from the Ministry of Emergency Situations of Kazakhstan took part in a three-day online course including videos, exercises and live interactive sessions, culminating in a disaster simulation exercise providing an opportunity to test out new-found skills. This was the first time this course, which is designed to give participants an understanding of what geographical information systems (GIS) are capable of and how to use the open source QGIS platform, has been delivered online and remotely. A substantial amount of work was involved in converting the course content into an digital format and translating it into Russian.

Screen shot of live online training session

In May, MapAction is running Advanced Humanitarian Mapping training for a select group of emergency management professionals from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan who have previously completed our introductory course and are ready to deepen their skills. The week-long, online course will cover data management, data preparedness and the different types of maps to use in particular emergency scenarios and phases.

We’re grateful to USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance (BHA) for funding this work, which is bringing great benefits to humanitarian response across Central Asia.

Find out more about MapAction’s training and preparedness services >>

MapAction and HeiGIT partner to further geoinformation innovation

The Heidelberg Institute for Geoinformation Technology (HeiGIT) and MapAction have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) outlining their plans to collaborate in a number of areas.

Both organisations share a common vision to support humanitarian mapping by providing innovative geoinformation services for humanitarian response, mitigating risk, anticipatory action and economic development. This includes developing up-to-date disaster maps based on OpenStreetMap (OSM).

In order to fulfil these objectives, HeiGIT and MapAction will work together on various activities involving research and development, teaching, outreach and fundraising.

Examples of current and emerging services we plan to jointly develop include OSM analytics such as Humanitarian OSM Stats, which provides detailed statistics about humanitarian mapping activities in OSM, as well as OSM data-quality assessment and improvement. Here, the ohsome quality analyst is of particular interest, which provides end users such as humanitarian organisations with information on the quality of OSM data for a specific region and use-case.

Further tools may include apps for crowdsourcing, data collection, navigation, routing and logistics services and machine-learning-based methods for data processing and enrichment.

We will also share knowledge, with MapAction contributing experiences aligned to HeiGIT’s teaching curriculum, and HeiGIT, in return providing teaching materials and research results to MapAction.

MapAction partners to support COVID-19 vaccine delivery

Administering billions of shots of COVID-19 vaccine around the world is a logistical challenge of unprecedented proportions. It is even more complex in countries lacking basic healthcare infrastructure, cold storage or comprehensive transport networks, or where accurate population information is not available.

Understanding how geospatial analysis can help, MapAction is partnering with other geographic information specialists to help coordinate the delivery of COVID-19 vaccines in 15 low-income countries with acute humanitarian needs. 

The Geographic Information Management Initiative for COVID-19 Vaccine Delivery (GIM Initiative), which launches today, aims to help local partners tackle critical issues such as the selection of distribution sites, the planning of healthcare workers’ journeys to remote locations when no up-to-date maps exist, how to record doses and follow up with vaccinated people, and challenges around accessing the most vulnerable communities, including settlements that aren’t yet mapped. 

MapAction is joined in the GIM Initiative by Alcis, CartONG, Humanitarian OpenStreetMap and iMMAP.

Mapping people who are moving

December 18 marks The United Nations (UN) International Migrants Day, recognising the efforts, contributions, and rights of migrants worldwide.  In light of this, we decided to share some of the work we did this year during the Syria crisis to highlight some of the challenges of meeting the needs of migrant populations, and also explore the role that maps can play when people are displaced from their homes.

MapAction was asked by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) to send a team to Turkey. Their mission: to help humanitarian teams there and in Northwest Syria supporting almost one million people – 60% of them children – that arrived in the region during January-March 2020, following an upsurge of fighting in Aleppo. 

A population displacement of this scale and speed results in great vulnerability for those involved, as well as many unknowns for humanitarians about people’s access to essential things like food, water, sanitation and shelter. And that’s before you factor in the added complication of COVID.

MapAction was asked to support two groups of humanitarian organisations collaborating to manage around 1,000 refugee camps – the Camp Coordination and Camp Management (CCCM) Cluster, and the Shelter /Non-Food Item (SNFI) Cluster

Camps vary enormously, from just a few tents to the size of a small city, and from temporary to long-term settlements. Some are isolated, while others are grouped together. Getting clean, up-to-date data about them is essential for the Clusters to coordinate life-saving aid. 

MapAction’s aim was to grant the Cluster coordinators a ‘single source of truth’ about the locations and sizes of the camps, to enable them to understand their population density and meet the needs of the people arriving and living in them. The imminent threat of COVID-19 made this even more urgent and important – not to mention more difficult. 

‘Data cleaning’ is a vital part of the process. Camp data is often captured by collectors with varying levels of training, network connectivity and other obstacles. Sometimes geographical coordinates are estimated from a central location instead of using GPS, or transcribed manually, introducing human errors. The same data might be captured several times by different organisations, with different results. All of this can make it difficult to pinpoint the exact locations of camps and could cause them to be missed or double counted, resulting in delays or complete omissions in aid delivery. 

Camps vary enormously, from just a few tents to the size of a small city, and from temporary to long-term settlements. Some are isolated, while others are grouped together. Getting clean, up-to-date data about them is essential for the Clusters to coordinate life-saving aid. 

The MapAction team compared a core list of 700 sites against a further list of 600 camps, and used GIS analysis to deduplicate against location, site name and then visually against the latest satellite imagery, to confirm locations. Over three iterations, they were able to support the CCCM Cluster to improve the core list from 700 to around 1,000 sites. 

To aid this process in Syria, our team created two data tools. One helped to identify anomalies in the camp location coordinates. The other automatically performed location analysis, determining in which Administrative District each camp was situated. As a result of creating these tools,  they were able to save 60-70% of the time it took to manually clean and assess camp location data – around half to one day of a Cluster team member’s time, once or twice a week – freeing them up for higher value tasks. They also enabled faster identification of unrecorded camps, speeding up the delivery of aid to people in need.

Next they drew polygons of the camps, mapping their size and extent. This major task, involving creating digital maps of most of Northwest Syria using OpenStreetMap imagery, gave context to the coordinates. It hadn’t been done before and was described by the Clusters as “fantastically helpful”. 

Migration mapping resources

The above describes the outputs of one MapAction mission in support of displaced people. To support the various aid agencies we work with, we also publish resources about the types of maps that can be helpful in different humanitarian situations, and information about their use. 

These resources include: core maps; maps to help with work in humanitarian clusters, and specifically, where there is vulnerability or access problems during a response (e.g. food, shelter, water and sanitation, etc.); and maps that are produced in response to a particular hazard such as armed conflict. 

In the case of migration, population maps, including baseline population, languages and population displacement maps, are often the most relevant. These maps may be produced in response to extensive population displacements driven by natural disasters, political unrest or a complex emergency situation. They are both strategic and operational in nature and can help all responders coordinate camps and aid response planning, including effective communication with affected people. 

Map of migration within and via West and Central Africa, including towards Europe: key drivers and routes

When it comes to migration, there are some things to bear in mind when mapping. For example, where migration is because of political persecution or war, recording camp boundaries and tagging them on a widely available map could pose a serious security risk. In these instances, it is common for some camp locations not to be shared. 

Thought should also be given to the most effective way to depict on maps the movement of groups who may go through different phases of displacement. In these cases, infographic methods of sharing the data may be more suitable than maps, showing summary information and key issues without publishing sensitive locational data.

Cluster maps are used in conjunction with core maps and can specifically show where there is a particular or probable vulnerability or access problem during a response, e.g food, shelter, hygiene facilities. Within this, the camp coordination or camp management cluster helps inform planning and operation of camps. They may show camp population figures, infrastructure, hazards or resources. Planning of camp locations is driven by many spatial factors including safety and access to resources.

According to the UN Office for the Commissioner on Human Rights, an estimated 258 million people, approximately 3% of the world’s population, currently live outside their country of origin, with an increasing number being forced to migrate due to a complex mix of issues including poverty, water, food and housing. We will continue to seek and develop ever more effective mapping and geospatial data tools to support our partners who are working tirelessly to help people caught up in any situations that cause them to leave their homes. 

Guatemala – video report from the airport

In this video, MapAction volunteer Emerson Tan gives a report from the airport on his way home from Guatemala.

MapAction was mobilised to help the international response to the catastrophic impacts of Hurricanes Eta and Iota which have caused tremendous suffering across Central America, on top of the COVID pandemic.

MapAction welcomes six new volunteers

It takes a special kind of person to join MapAction’s band of very dedicated and highly skilled volunteers. Following a competitive recruitment process, six new faces have joined our team, expanding our capacity to provide knowledge and practical support to organisations around the world preparing for and responding to different types of emergencies.

The new recruits each bring valuable skills and experience in either GIS, software development or data science, as well as the special mix of passion, team spirit and professionalism that are prerequisite qualities for MapAction volunteers. They will now begin a rigorous induction and training programme which will equip them with the knowledge they need to apply their expertise in different types of humanitarian contexts. Here’s a little bit about our new colleagues:

Gemma with her hand on a colourful statue of a leaping dolphin on a sunny day. She is smiling to camera.

Dr Gemma Davies – Straight after finishing her MSc in Geographic Information for Development, Gemma started working at Lancaster University providing GIS support for what is now the Lancaster Environment Centre. Over twenty years, the role has evolved and equipped her with a wide range of skills in applied GIS. As well as teaching, she has been involved in researching numerous topics including climate change, epidemiology and food security, culminating in the completion of her PhD by Published Works in 2019. When not absorbed in the world of GIS she loves to travel, swim and play saxophone.

“I am most looking forward to being part of a team of like minded people, using their professional skills to make a positive difference in the lives of people affected by humanitarian crises.” – Gemma

Daniel on a sunny mountain top wearing a backpack and smiling to camera. Another climber is visible in the background also looking to the camera.

Daniel Soares – With an academic background in applied mathematics and mechanical engineering, Daniel is a data scientist at data and deep tech company nam.R where he works mainly with geospatial data applied to energy efficiency projects. He is greatly interested in the application of technical skills to humanitarian, social and ecological challenges. In his free time he loves to listen to all kinds of music, including jazz, heavy metal and Latin, and plays percussion in a group.

“My favourite thing about applied mathematics to engineering problems is the diversity of fields my skills can be applied.” – Daniel

Samir Gandhi – Although he recently took the plunge into a data analysis role at the UK government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Sam’s heart is really in maps. He moonlights as The Jolly Geo, hosting quizzes, freelancing and blogging about fun geo stuff like camera trapping and solargaphy. He is also keen on tennis, karting, trail running and football and is a big Leeds fan.

“GIS is a powerful blend of art and science. I could (and do) stare at my outputs for hours! I’m looking forward to being part of a community of like-minded people, just doing what we love doing. You can’t beat a geographer!” – Sam

Emma Hall and her dog Woody each standing on a tree stump on a sunny Austrian mountainside, looking to camera.

Emma Hall – Emma began her career as a GIS specialist working in local government before moving to the world’s first green energy company and then entering academia where she taught GIS and used it in her conservation-based research. She is an environmental advocate, with a passion for conservation ecology. She is currently conducting doctoral research at Kingston University London, using predictive modelling to assess plant species’ adaptations to climate change in Madagascar. When not working or volunteering, you’ll find her hiking, wild swimming, or cycling in the mountains, with her rescue dog, Woody.

“One of my favourite GIS tools is Global Forest Watch because it combines GIS and spatial analysis in an accessible way so that anyone can use it to support the protection of our global forest ecosystems.” – Emma

Hugh running through a chest-deep tank of cold muddy water on a Tough Mudder type race.

Hugh Loughrey – While working in local government as a GIS technician, Hugh spotted the trend of people wanting to interact more and more with maps online, prompting him to learn more about web technologies. He’s worked in both the public and private sectors in the UK and New Zealand automating complex data processes and is currently a software engineer for an online estate agency. Originally from Belfast, Hugh lives in Birmingham with his wife and two young daughters. He plans to complete the Breca Loch Lomond Swimrun in August 2021.

“The news is regularly full of reports of humanitarian disasters around the world and I wanted to use the skills gained throughout my career as a GIS analyst turned software developer to help MapAction assist in as many as possible.” – Hugh

Head and shoulders shot of Felix Fennell smiling to camera

Felix Fennell – With a background in geography, Felix is a geospatial developer in the mapping team at the British Antarctic Survey. He is interested in data discoverability, automation, data processing and building tools and services for location tracking, situational awareness and planning in Antarctica. He’s been involved with MapAction partner Missing Maps for a few years and is looking forward to deepening his contributions to humanitarian work. He enjoys hiking, challenging his fear of heights and mostly losing at board games.

I enjoy saving people time, either by automating routine or complex tasks or building things that are intuitive and easy to use. The broad range of projects and expertise within MapAction is really exciting and interesting, if a little daunting at this point. – Felix

Responding to Hurricanes Eta and Iota

Countries in Central America are facing catastrophic winds and flooding as Hurricane Iota, a Category 5 storm, makes its way across Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador.

With wind gusts of up to 250km/hr and torrential rain, Iota made landfall in northeast Nicaragua last night. It is compounding the damage and devastation inflicted by Category 4 Hurricane Eta, which killed at least 178 people in the region a fortnight ago and destroyed food crops for thousands of families.

Map of flood extent and land cover in Ulua Basin, Lower Aguan Basin and Choluteca Lower Basin, Honduras, as of 6th/7th/11th November 2020

MapAction has been remotely providing full emergency support to the Latin American and Caribbean regional body of the UN’s Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), known as ROLAC, since 6 November to assist the response to Eta and now Iota. This includes mapping storm tracks, flood extents, building damage, affected populations and information about what assistance humanitarian teams are already providing in different locations so that gaps can be identified and rapidly addressed. This work represents a scaling-up of the ongoing support to ROLAC we have been providing since September, in preparation for Hurricane season and other humanitarian issues across the region.

“Iota is hampering the response to Eta, severely degrading logistic routes and complicating the information picture,” said MapAction’s Operations Director Chris Davies. “Our maps are helping teams on the ground direct resources where they’re most needed, as safely as possible. We will continue to provide support to our ROLAC colleagues and are anticipating and preparing for additional requests for our assistance.”

Map of humanitarian presence overview by department, Honduras, as at 16 November 2020

We’re 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. 

MapAction contributes to webinar on emerging urban challenges

Aerial view across the suburbs of a city to the sky scrapers of the central business district on the horizon.

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.

Chaired and Hosted by:

Speakers

  • 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.

The full one hour Webinar can be viewed below.

Ten tips for making simple, informative maps in a pandemic

MapAction has been collaborating for a number of years with French NGO and fellow humanitarian information management specialists CartONG.

Four people participating in an online meeting, two from MapAction, two from CartONG

In addition to our operational activities, we thought it would be worthwhile to pool our collective knowledge to create an informative article. The ten-minute read aims to give some helpful tips for people creating maps intended to assist humanitarian responses to the Corona virus and other pandemics.

Between us, we have a lot of experience of using geospatial analysis and visualisations to inform decision-making in this and previous epidemics, such as Ebola, as well as the current pandemic. We wanted to share this knowledge more widely and felt that, by working together, we could create something really useful and reach more people. Although it was written with pandemics in mind, many of the points apply to all kinds of map making.

You can read the article on the CartONG blog below.

AFD, H2H Network and UK aid logos

This project was co-funded by the French Development Agency (AFD) and the H2H Network’s H2H Fund, the latter supported by UK aid from the UK government.

MapAction’s Moonshot – origins and ambitions

By Juan Duarte, Technical Director, and Monica Turner, Data Scientist, MapAction

Close up of left hand side of the moon
Photo: Adam Scott

History will always underscore how landing on the moon represented a significant milestone in the space race, yet what is often less spoken about is the number of technologies that might not have ever made it without space travel.

These include the all-important ability to take pictures on our phone, thanks to the technology originally created by a team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the technique used to develop diamond-hard coatings for aerospace systems that can now be found on scratch-resistant spectacles. Inventions that originally started life with a bigger purpose but have filtered down into solving some of the challenges in our everyday lives.

This brings us onto MapAction’s own Moonshot initiative – an ambitious programme of work encompassing step changes in the way we use different technologies in the course of our work. This includes things like how we triage, assign and manage the requests for support we receive, and how we can automate certain repeat activities. 

One of the first projects we are working on within the Moonshot programme will enable us to produce seven to nine key maps for 20 of the world’s most vulnerable countries automatically, using technology we’re developing that will provide benefits for many years to come. This is being funded through our partnership with the German Federal Foreign Office.

In the humanitarian sector, a perennial challenge is access to high-quality data. This need is even more acute in the chaotic aftermath of a humanitarian emergency, when data and maps are crucial to make rapid sense of the situation and plan the best response to save lives and minimise suffering. 

In the early hours of a crisis, one of the first tasks facing our team is to produce standardised ‘core’ maps that will be used throughout the response, regardless of the nature of the emergency. These provide contextual and reference information about, among other things, the local environment, population and infrastructure. Sometimes they are created under difficult on-the-ground conditions or with incomplete information. Once they are in place, they are used to create additional situation-specific maps by layering on top evolving information about the extent and impacts of the emergency and the humanitarian response.

As MapAction has made maps in hundreds of emergencies, it has become apparent that, in creating these foundational core maps, there are many repeatable, generalised tasks that could be handled much more quickly by a machine, achieving in seconds what used to take hours. This would give humanitarian decision-makers the orientation information they need immediately, and free up our specialist volunteers for actively assessing and engaging with the situation at hand and performing the mapping tasks that only humans can do. 

Moreover, by shifting the focus from reactive to proactive data sourcing and map production, we can ensure we provide the best maps possible – not just the best maps, given the time and data available and the prevailing circumstances in the midst of a humanitarian emergency. 

Many countries, particularly low and middle-income countries, are likely to have data gaps, and they are often also the countries that may have the least resilience to emergencies such as droughts or earthquakes. Identifying and addressing these data gaps in advance is a big part of the Moonshot project, and something that will have benefits for the humanitarian sector as a whole. 

Like the proverbial needle in the haystack, important data can exist within a subset of a much larger dataset and accessing it can be tricky. Finding a gap is even more difficult, as you’re looking for an unknown entity that isn’t there. The technology we’re developing for the Moonshot will help us to identify the hard-to-see data gaps and quality issues that currently exist. By discovering these, we can pinpoint what information will be needed to ensure a complete map and then work with partners around the world to proactively put in place missing data or improve what currently exists. 

The initial goal of the Moonshot is to publish 180 core maps (nine for each of the 20 vulnerable countries identified at the beginning of the project). The same processes will then be applied to other countries and, eventually, to other types of automated maps beyond these core ones. This means we will ultimately be in a position to expand our understanding and quality assessment processes for more data types. New opportunities and routes of travel are likely to emerge as the project develops.

The ambition is big, but the possibilities that will result from achieving this goal will fundamentally change the way we approach map creation in the humanitarian sector in the future.

In a series of blogs over the next few months, we will share the story of this work as it unfolds, as well as diving down deeper into specific elements of it.

Helping WHO with mapping in Libya and Chad

MapAction volunteers have been supporting the World Health Organization (WHO) in Libya and Chad to process and map data about health and sanitation services, in order to support the response to COVID-19.

The volunteers have been working remotely, alongside each country’s health cluster (networks of WHO partners that work together to relieve suffering and save lives in humanitarian emergencies). They have been helping to identify and map what healthcare, water and sanitation services and aid are being provided, by whom, when and where. This is known as 4W mapping and is important to help identify gaps and avoid duplication.

We are now looking at providing similar assistance to WHO in other parts of North and Central Africa.

MapAction provides GIS support for MSF’s COVID response

MapAction’s partner Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) provides rapid-response medical teams to assist in conflict zones, natural disasters and epidemics. On any given day, its staff treats tens of thousands of patients for a variety of illnesses in its medical programmes around the world.

MSF is very concerned how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect people in countries with already fragile health systems. In many areas where its teams work, there are few medical organisations in a position to respond to an overload of patients.

In order to provide the best medical aid as fast as possible, MSF is working with its technical partner CartONG to create a single repository for all the information its operations personnel need to rapidly respond to the COVID crisis, including information about travel restrictions, flights, cargo transport, availability of supplies, etc. A MapAction team member has been seconded to this technical task force in the role of GIS coordinator. As well as bringing technical expertise in data and content strategy, he’s helping to define and prioritise the information needs of MSF teams and create content for the new platform.

Helping UN Asia Pacific COVID-19 response

A MapAction team member currently based in New Zealand is providing GIS, mapping and information management support to the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Asia and the Pacific (ROAP).

Over the next two months, he will be helping ROAP to support countries that have limited public health infrastructure and resources to cope with the rapid onset of COVID-19. He will be assisted in this work by MapAction’s team of volunteers.

ROAP covers 41 countries in Asia and the Pacific and currently supports these countries in their efforts to ramp up preparedness and response through the UN Resident Coordinators and their offices, as well as local governments.

UN On-Site Operations Coordination Centre course in Estonia

Two MapAction members are currently in Tallinn, Estonia, participating in and helping to facilitate a course for UN On-Site Operations Coordination Centre (OSOCC) Assessment and Analysis Cell teams. Participants are looking in detail at ways in which data and analysis can inform fast-moving and chaotic emergency situations.

MapAction’s CEO Liz Hughes is also in Tallinn this week, taking part in a meeting of the International Humanitarian Partnership.

Thanks to the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance for supporting this important disaster preparedness work.

INSARAG earthquake simulation in Azerbaijan

Earier this month, three MapAction volunteers provided mapping and data support to an International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG) earthquake simulation exercise in Azerbaijan, known as the Africa-Europe-Middle East (AEME) Regional Earthquake Response Exercise (ERE).

Thanks to the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance for supporting this important disaster preparedness work.

UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination training

At the end of October, two MapAction volunteers participated in a UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) refresher training course in Neuhausen, Germany. As well as presenting to participants on humanitarian mapping, they supported the simulation exercise with mapping.

These regular training courses enable all involved to enhance and update their skills and knowledge and share insights from disaster responses.

One MapAction participant described the course as a “fantastic week”, while the other described the UNDAC trainees as a “Really dedicated team with interesting first hand experiences from Idai and Dorian.”

We’re grateful to the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance for supporting this important disaster preparedness work.

Responding to floods in Lao PDR

At the end of August and beginning of September, Tropical Storm PODUL and Tropical Depression KAJIKI caused heavy rain in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. This resulted in flooding in six provinces in the southern part of the country. 1,658 villages across 47 Districts have been affected.

A MapAction volunteer is currently working in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Emergency Operations Centre in Jakarta to support our partner the AHA CENTRE as they assist the response. He is supporting the Emergency Response Assessment Team by mapping the evolving situation on the ground, conducting geospatial analysis to compare with 2018 flash flooding in the region, and helping to identify gaps in coverage to help get aid where it’s most needed. This also involves establishing information management and GIS systems and templates for Lao that will be useful beyond the current emergency.

We’re very grateful to the German Federal Foreign Office for supporting this work.

MapAction on the Mapscaping podcast

Podcast

One of MapAction’s longest-serving volunteers, Kathrin Renner, recently spoke to Daniel O’Donohue, presenter of the Mapscaping podcast series, about how MapAction provides geospatial support for humanitarian emergencies.

They chatted about how MapAction supports first responders and disaster management teams to make the best possible decisions and what it’s like to be a MapAction volunteer.

You can hear their conversation here (it’s a 22 minute listen).

More GIS training in Central Asia

Last week a MapAction team was back in Kazakhstan continuing our collaboration with Central Asia’s Center for Emergency Situations & Disaster Risk Reduction (CESDRR).

We were training emergency responders from Shymkent, Kyzylorda, Turkestan & Jambyl in GIS, mapping and data management.

The event appeared on local TV news: https://youtube.com/watch?v=OJ5qVpjiH64 (in Kazakh).

This week, the training continues with a new group of emergency responders in Kyrgyzstan.

We’re grateful to the US Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) for supporting this work.

Supporting United Nations training exercise in Indonesia

This week MapAction is in Sentul, Indonesia, to support an induction training course for the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC).

As well as supporting an earthquake simulation exercise with mapping, three MapAction members are delivering training on GPS, information management and the use of maps for humanitarian response.

MapAction regularly provides training and support to UNDAC’s induction courses that take place around the world for new team members

Our participation in this training was made possible thanks to the support of the Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance. OFDA provides us with grant funding to help us improve the use of maps, geographical information systems (GIS) and spatial analysis across the humanitarian sector to improve the impact of humanitarian aid.

GIS training for disaster preparedness in Kazakhstan

A programme of training for disaster management teams across Kazakhstan has been continuing this week. Employees of the Department for Emergency Situations of Almaty, the East Kazakhstan and Pavlodar regions have been learning about geographic information systems (GIS), data management and mapping on a course jointly provided by MapAction and the region’s Center for Emergency Situations and Disaster Risk Reduction (CESDRR).

The training is part of an ongoing programme of work which sees CESDRR and MapAction collaborating to enhance the use of mapping and information management to improve and expand disaster preparedness, relief and recovery activities across Central Asia. We’re very grateful to US Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) for funding this work.

Three MapAction volunteers are currently in Ust-Kamenogorsk in East Kazakhstan. Next week they will move to Atyrau in the West of the country to repeat the course with another group of local emergency management personnel. In August, two further courses will take place in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Read about our other recent activities in Central Asia.

More training for Caribbean disaster management teams

Two MapAction training courses are in progress in Trinidad & Tobago this week.

Three MapAction team members are privileged to be working with members of civil protection response teams from Trinidad & Tobago, Guyana and Surinam. We are collaborating to share geospatial skills and experiences to support readiness for response to communities.

In the region, hurricanes and storms are a key concern, but several countries also respond to a multitude of different concerns affecting their citizens including earthquakes and other seismic risks.

We are very grateful for the support of The Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management of Trinidad & Tobago for their support. This is part of an ongoing joint programme we are carrying out with the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA). We have already run humanitarian mapping courses with CDEMA in Antigua & Barbuda, Barbados and Jamaica. This important work is funded by US Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA).

Training MapAction’s latest recruits

Also in Trinidad & Tobago this week, the newest members of MapAction’s Caribbean section are being put through their paces on our Conversion Course which, through a combination of theory and practical exercises, prepares our GIS expert volunteers for deployments to humanitarian emergencies.

The week-long course covers numerous topics including sources and collection of humanitarian data, mapping in emergency conditions, priority needs and the timeline of a response.

Humanitarian mapping training in the Caribbean

Together with our partner the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA), members of MapAction’s Caribbean and European teams are providing humanitarian mapping training to local disaster management teams from the Eastern and Central regions of the Caribbean this week and next .

Pictures by CDEMA

Disaster management personnel from nine Caribbean nations, as well as CDEMA staff, are attending one of two courses, one in Antigua & Barbuda and the other in Barbados. These courses follow on from similar workshops that took place last year: a regional one at CDEMA’s headquarters in Barbados and one for the North-Western Caribbean in Jamaica. 

Participants are improving their GIS (geographical information system) skills and we are working with them to help understand their national data and information management needs and capabilities, where the gaps are and how MapAction can help to ensure they are filled. This will assist them to effectively prepare for and respond to disasters.

This is part of our ongoing joint programme of work with CDEMA and is funded by US Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA).

Inside the Response to Cyclone Idai

MapAction volunteer Andreas Buchholz has just returned from Beira, Mozambique. He has put together the short video below, which gives a good sense of the scale and urgency of the international response to this major disaster.

While the floodwaters have begun to recede, the situation is still very serious in large parts of Mozambique and surrounding countries. Damage to homes and livelihoods is extensive and lack of access to clean water is causing outbreaks of diseases such as cholera.

MapAction has been working closely with the government of Mozambique, NGOs, the UN and Red Cross teams at the heart of the response and our help has been widely appreciated. The aerial assessment maps shown in the video have so far been printed over two thousand times and used to support search and rescue and the distribution of foodstuffs. The maps were created by the MapAction team in Mozambique with close collaboration with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) and Save the Children.

At the time of writing, MapAction personnel are continuing to work at the On-Site Operations Coordination Centre in Beira, Mozambique.

We are grateful to everyone that has donated to our Cyclone Idai appeal, to the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) and to the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs for funding this life-saving work.

Mapping mountains

By Jorge Andres, MapAction volunteer

A few years ago, on a MapAction team training course, participants were asked to present a map that provided particular insight, analysis, or novelty – going beyond simple descriptive mapping.

I chose this map I created of the 2014-5 volcanic eruption on Fogo Island. The steep relief of the island was highly relevant for humanitarian response. Emergency coordinators were monitoring the lava flow as it could reach a critical point where some settlements and roads could be potentially affected afterwards. However, trying to show it with contour lines made the map too messy for a shelter map like this. Satellite imagery and some image processing was used. But, with hindsight, I’m not so sure it was the right option.

I thought quite a lot about this map and the visualisation of the relief. But honestly, this was the best I could do on a static map for showing relief to a broad audience without contour lines.

However, creating this map and then later collaborating with the University of Edinburgh on a volcanic hazard mapping project made me think of a 3D output as a better option for maps where relief is extremely important for understanding the emergency situation.

This fed into my approach to creating the below map of the Crisis del Volcán de Fuego in Guatemala last year.

The volcanic hazard mapping project we are collaborating on with Edinburgh University is growing and we now have funding to expand to six more countries. We are currently working on Chile’s Nevados de Chillán.

Our journey towards equality

By Liz Hughes, MapAction Chief Executive

International Women’s Day is as good a day as any to reflect on gender diversity in the humanitarian and geospatial technology sectors and on what MapAction is doing to ensure equality of opportunity for everyone.

Globally, the proportion of women in the humanitarian sector workforce is high compared to other business sectors, but they are significantly under-represented at leadership level. The gender gap is more pronounced in the tech sector, where LinkedIn data indicates women make up just 27% of the total global workforce, and fewer than one in five female employees reach positions of leadership. That is very worrying when you consider that technology is, in a very real way, shaping the world in which we all live.

Some research suggests that women are better represented in the GIS (geographical information systems) sector than in other technology fields, and, according to our friends at Open Street Map, this is particularly true within the fields of humanitarian and disaster response mapping.

All of this indicates that MapAction, operating as it does at the centre of the Venn diagram of humanitarian emergencies and geospatial information, should be able to achieve gender parity. As an organisation committed to equal opportunities, that is certainly our aim, and one towards which we are steadily progressing, but have yet to attain.

We are fortunate enough to have as distinguished a female geographer as Dr Barbara Bond, Past President of the British Cartographic Society and Fellow and Past Council Member of the Royal Geographical Society, as a Trustee. As well as this, our senior leadership team is evenly balanced by gender. However, currently the overall proportion of women in the organisation is around 30%. Within our volunteer team, where much of our GIS and tech expertise resides, the figure is 26% and currently only a fifth of our ten Trustees are women. We can and will do better.

Why diversity matters

This is important for several reasons. It is certainly desirable that women and other under-represented groups have the opportunity to experience the tremendous personal and professional benefits of being a MapAction volunteer, so they can bring all that learning and personal growth back to help their own organisations and careers. In addition, part of the volunteer experience is belonging to a close community of GIS professionals with whom you work, train, socialise and share some very unique and powerful experiences. As one of our volunteers Kirsty Ferris put it, the “great support, understanding and shared geekiness” is invaluable. According to Kirsty, “There are not many places where you can talk GPS and geodesy with such shared enthusiasm.” To have that kind of peer support network can be vital when 62% of women say they do not see themselves staying in GIS for more than ten years. We need to ensure we have a diverse mix of people, so that all members of our team feel they belong.

But over and above the importance of diversity to our team is its importance for the work we do and the people who’s lives we are seeking to save and improve. The maps we create are a product or our collective know-how and team experience. As Andrew Foerch explains in his article ‘The Importance of Diversity in Cartography’, “Maps are more likely to address problems visible to the people who create them. For example, male and female responses might differ significantly if asked to map safe walking routes through a city.”

Thinking differently can make a difference

GIS and technology expert volunteers make up the lion’s share of MapAction’s membership – we have over 80, plus 10 Trustees, compared to a staff team of 17, most of whom are part-time. We recruit our volunteers once a year, enabling us to train each new intake group together, in order to equip them with all the skills they need to operate effectively within a disaster zone.

Our volunteer recruitment drive is an important annual activity and each new year group brings fresh energy and experience as well as new personalities to our team. The number of men applying to volunteer and making it through our rigorous selection process has nearly always exceeded the number of women. This has always been a concern, but the problem became urgent in 2017 when for the second time in three years, all the successful applicants were male, and only three women were recruited during the three-year period out of a total of 25.

To address the issue, we set up a working group of volunteers and staff members to review our recruitment and also working practices and develop a plan of action. A number of actions came out of that process:

  • We reviewed our GIS volunteer profile to ensure it was attractive to and inclusive of under-represented groups.
  • We published profiles of a diverse group of volunteers and offered to connect prospective applicants with them to find out more about what it’s like to be a MapAction volunteer.
  • We made sure a statement about our commitment to diversity and equal opportunities was included in all our recruitment materials.
  • We broadened the advertising strategy of our recruitment drive, to incorporate organisations such as Women in Technology and Girls Who Code.
  • In order to ensure there are no barriers to entry for any particular group due to unconscious bias on the part of those shortlisting candidates, we are looking at removing all information pertaining to gender, age, ethnicity, disability, etc. from applications.

It is still early days, and there is still much more to do, but it was gratifying to see that our 2018 volunteer intake achieved gender parity at least. We will continuously evaluate and improve our approach. There is tremendous commitment within our staff and volunteer teams to achieve our diversity objectives as part of making MapAction as good as it can be. With that momentum behind us I’m confident that we will get there.

A busy fortnight of training

While many people in the UK prepare for Christmas, a number of our members have been hard at work supporting disaster simulation exercises and delivering mapping training to our partners in different parts of the world.

UNDAC induction course in Ecuador

In the first week of December, three MapAction volunteers were in Riobamba supporting an UNDAC (United Nations Disaster Assessment Coordination) disaster simulation exercise with maps and data visualisations.

The team worked hard to produce a large number of maps in a short space of time under realistic field conditions.

Earthquake simulation in Armenia

At the same time, two MapAction volunteers travelled to Yerevan, Armenia, to support the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group’s (INSARAG) regional earthquake response exercise with maps. This simulation exercise was particularly poignant, coinciding as it did with the 30th anniversary of the Spitak earthquake, which killed over 25,000 Armenians and injured over 130,000 more.

During the exercise, the MapAction team worked with an UNDAC team as well as collaborating with various Search & Rescue and Emergency Medical Teams from around the world.

Induction course in Indonesia

Meanwhile, in Bogor, Indonesia, two MapAction volunteers took part in another earthquake simulation exercise as part of the 10th Induction Course of the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations Emergency Response and Assessment Team (ASEAN-ERAT). They mapped the exercise and provided a GIS refresher course.

We’ve worked closely with the ASEAN-ERAT team this year, having supported a number of training activities as well as four emergency responses (two in country and two remotely). It’s great to be strengthening our relationship with each new exercise, ensuring a very effective collaboration when circumstances demand it.

Humanitarian mapping course in Jamaica

Last week, a three-person MapAction team was in Jamaica delivering a humanitarian mapping course to emergency response coordinators from another close partner, CDEMA (the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency). This is part of a programme of longer term disaster preparedness we are working on with CDEMA supported by EU ECHO (the European Civil Protection & Humanitarian Aid Operations).

National mapping and data management training in Kyrgyzstan

A further two MapAction volunteers were in Bishkek last week to deliver a package of training on mapping, data collection and data management for national disaster management agencies.

This is part of our ongoing collaboration with CESDRR (the Central Asian Center for Emergency Situations and Disaster Risk Reduction) which sees us helping to develop best practice for emergency data management across the region.

We’re very grateful to the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) for funding our participation in the Ecuador, Armenia, Indonesia and Kyrgyzstan activities and to EU ECHO for the Jamaica course.

MapAction Volunteer(s) of the Year

On 1 December, MapAction held its Annual General Meeting (AGM) at which we looked back over 2018 and thanked our volunteers and members who have given so much to us over the course of the year in order to further our humanitarian work.

Ant Scott giving a situation report during the response to the Indonesia earthquake in October

Every year we highlight the contribution of one volunteer who has exceeded even our very high expectations in terms of their dedication and impact over the previous twelve months. Winning the Volunteer of the Year prize (also known as the David Spackman Award after our first Chief Executive who presents it each year) is a significant achievement. The bar is very high; all our volunteers are carefully selected for their skills, intelligence, attitude and dedication and being part of our deployable team requires a large, ongoing commitment of time and effort. As well as going on missions and participating in team training, our volunteers also do a lot of less publicly visible work in the UK. They help to ensure that MapAction has the technical capability (tools, knowledge and skills) to maintain and enhance its humanitarian activities. They also create maps remotely and provide remote support to our own teams and our partners around the world to help them process and analyse data and create maps locally.

Mark Gillick (left) receiving the MapAction Volunteer of the Year Award from David Spackman

Two winners

This year, unusually, the David Spackman Award was given to two individuals – Mark Gillick and Ant Scott – both of whom have packed in a huge amount of extremely valuable and important pro bono work during the past twelve months.

Mark deployed a remarkable seven times in 2018 carrying out essential training and preparedness as well as disaster response work. He went from floods in Nigeria directly to the earthquake in Indonesia without returning home in between.

Ant deployed to the Indonesian earthquake, helped represent MapAction at the Humanitarian Openstreetmap Team’s global summit in Tanzania and this month will be conducting a preparedness mission to Kyrgyzstan. He also lead the management and evolution of MapAction’s disaster preparedness offering and spearheaded the transition of our internal wiki to a new platform – a task which took many months of continual focus.

Presenting the awards, David highlighted three qualities that both winners had exhibited in abundance during 2018; intelligence, honourable intent and imagination in the form of creativity and inventiveness. “There is a power relationship between motivation, thought and action, and you both have shown the potency of that synthesis in a noble cause. Could anyone ask for more? Together you are a manifestation of a shining tradition. Thank you both, for your practical hard work and for the self-effacing magic of your inspiration.”

Congratulations to Ant and Mark, and thank you to all our volunteers for the tremendous work you do.

Below is our CEO Liz Hughes’ review of 2018 which she shared at the AGM.

Training and mapping at ARDEX

MapAction volunteer Ian Coady was in Banten, Indonesia, last week, with our partner the AHA Centre, which is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management. Together they were taking part in the seventh ASEAN Regional Disaster Emergency Response Simulation Exercise (ARDEX).

As well as creating maps to support the AHA Centre’s coordination teams during the exercise, Ian provided training on the use of geographical information systems (GIS) and information management for humanitarian purposes.

Thanks to USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) for supporting this important work.

 

Seven days of GIS

November 14 is GIS Day – an international event for users of geographical information systems (GIS) technology to demonstrate real-world applications that are making a difference in society.

To mark the day and celebrate the impact that GIS has in humanitarian work, we’re sharing ‘Seven days of GIS’.

Each day for the next seven days we will reveal a favourite map, a fascinating fact or a story about how GIS is used to help prepare for and respond to humanitarian emergencies.

Day 1) 8 November – floods in Malawi

In January 2015, MapAction volunteer Andreas Buchholz was one member of a MapAction team that traveled to Malawi to help the response to catastrophic flooding.

This map turned out to be vitally important to the UN and other teams responding to the situation on the ground.

Andreas chose to highlight this map for GIS Day because “it influenced decision makers on a local, national and global level to decide where to distribute and prioritise aid.”

Click on the map to see the story.

Day 2) 9 November – livestock map

David Spackman was MapAction’s first employee in 2002 and led its first major deployment to Sri Lanka following the tsunami that devastated the country in January 2004.

David chose this map from 2007 because “it makes a powerful point, often lost in the focus on human tragedies: if you lose your livestock you lose your livelihood.”

The map was created as part of MapAction’s response to Tropical Storm Noel which caused severe flooding and displaced more than 64,000 people in the Dominican Republic in October 2007. More than 80% of the country was affected. In total we created around 50 maps that helped local responders get aid to where it was needed as quickly as possible and begin the recovery process.

Day 3) 10 November – Mark’s busy year

MapAction volunteer Mark Gillick has had a busy year so far, putting his GIS skills to life-saving use around the world. Since August alone, he has deployed to Indonesia, Nigeria and Afghanistan and delivered humanitarian mapping training in Laos and Kazakhstan.

Find out more about where he’s been and the difference it’s made by clicking on the photo.

Day 4) 11 November – language mapping

The ability to communicate with populations affected by disasters and emergencies effectively is key to understanding their needs and keeping them informed of life-saving information.

A language map is a good example of a map that might be needed in the aftermath of a disaster. It is likely to be used by anyone interacting with the local community, particularly international responders who may be unfamiliar with the affected area. Emergency telecommunications clusters may use it to help inform the best positioning of new infrastructure.

Mappers can pull in language data from resources such as Ethnologue and national censuses and combine it with administrative boundaries and settlements and communications infrastructure data.

This map was created by MapAction during the response to the earthquake in Nepal in April 2015. It shows the main language groups in Nepal and was used for planning public communications with disaster-affected communities.

Click on the map to find out more about language mapping.

Day 5) 12 November – coordination maps

MapAction’s CEO Liz Hughes strongly believes that maps are key to making effective operational decisions. “But they need to communicate simply, quickly and clearly and the data needs to be right, or it can have serious implications.”

Liz chose to highlight this map from the aftermath of Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu in March 2015 because it shows how useful geospatial analysis can be in quickly understanding needs and coordinating the response in a chaotic post-disaster situation. Knowing what others are already doing to help is essential to targeting aid effectively.

Liz explains, “This map lets you quickly see gaps and also where more coordination is needed. It’s good to know that we can use our amazing team’s skills to provide useful analysis of this sort.” MapAction created well over 100 maps to help coordinate the response to Cyclone Pam, which was one of the worst natural disasters the island of Vanuatu had ever experienced.

Day 6) historic map

MapAction trustee Barbara Bond is an author and geographer whose senior leadership roles have included president of the British Cartographic Society, senior civilian Director and Deputy Chief Executive of the UK Hydrographic Office and Chair of the International Hydrographic Organisation’s Antarctic Commission. Among other accolades, she has received the British Cartographic Society’s silver medal and the Prince Albert I medal and been inducted into the US National Geospatial-Intelligence Hall of Fame.

Barbara’s PhD thesis, ‘Great Escapes: the story of MI9’s Second World War escape and evasion maps’, was published in October 2015 by Harper Collins.

One of Barbara’s all time favourite maps is of the Danzig Docks and was produced by MI9 during the Second World War for escaping prisoners of war. The map shows the place that Swedish boats docked. Barbara explains, “It carries the most powerful message about the best way to get home (board a Swedish ship and get to a neutral country.) That map saved many lives since hundreds (even thousands) of prisoners of war successfully escaped via that route.”

Day 7: GIS Day – our volunteers

MapAction’s work depends on a group of highly skilled and dedicated volunteers who are ready to be deployed at very short notice anywhere in the world, with a select few providing specific technical capacity (system administration and software development).

In their day jobs, our volunteers work in a range of fields from Antarctic surveying to zoological research. When they join our team they are already proficient and experienced in GIS or a related subject. We train them to apply those skills in a humanitarian context.

Being a MapAction volunteer is as demanding as it is rewarding. A humanitarian response requires a huge team effort to work; MapAction team members can find themselves helping at a remote and challenging location or working through the night to provide support to our deployed team. Between missions volunteers participate in monthly MapAction training courses to update and expand their skills, as well as teaching and passing on their knowledge to humanitarians around the world. The time commitment is high, but the sense of community and satisfaction means people stay with us for many years. As longstanding volunteer Emerson Tan comments in this video, “You can’t beat the feeling of seeing some people who are alive because of your work.”

 

Supporting the response to Super Typhoon Mangkhut

Catastrophic weather events have affected millions of people around the world in recent weeks. So far this month we have seen six named tropical storms in the Atlantic and Pacific, including three hurricanes and two super typhoons – and storm season is still far from over.

At the same time as the southern US was battered by Hurricane Florence just under a fortnight ago, parts of the Philippines were devastated by Super Typhoon Mangkhut, known locally as Ompong, which also caused widespread damage in Hong Kong and southeast China.

Mangkhut has affected over 2.1 million people in the Philippines, which is still recovering from the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 in which over 6,000 people died. The latest death toll has reached 127, with almost the same number still missing, compared to four dead in China. More than 10,000 houses in the Philippines were completely destroyed by Mangkhut and over 100,000 others damaged. More than 50,000 people are in immediate need of assistance and, with damage to agriculture estimated at over £378 million, livelihoods and food security are of concern in the medium-term.

A MapAction member has been in Jakarta, working with emergency response teams at the head quarters of the AHA Centre (the Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) as it responds to the emergency. Our latest maps show some of the impacts Mangkhut has had in the Philippines as well as the assistance currently being provided. We are continuing to provide mapping and information management support to support the recovery process.

Caribbean storms: our response

Storms Isaac, Florence, Joyce and Helene are currently passing across the Caribbean region and Southern USA and we are monitoring and mapping their progress together with forecasts of likely wind speeds, storm surges, flood risks and other hazards. Isaac is due to pass over Dominica, Guadeloupe, Antigua and Barbuda today, bringing very high winds and heavy rain. Currently it looks as if Dominica is at greatest risk of flooding.

MapAction member Jonny Douch is in Barbados where he is providing support to the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA) which is headquartered there. Jonny has been in the region for the past three weeks, delivering mapping training to members of the teams that make up CDEMA’s Regional Response Mechanism and supporting the UN Disaster Assessment Coordination (UNDAC) with preparedness activities in St Maarten. He has stayed on in Barbados to help with the storm response. We also have a small team of trained Disaster GIS Volunteers who live in the region and other team members are on standby to help as needed.

MapAction has significant recent experience and strong working relationships in the Caribbean, having provided GIS teams and other assistance in response to several hurricanes and the Haiti earthquake, as well as training and preparedness activities. Ronald Jackson, Executive Director of CDEMA, said this week, “We had the opportunity to work closely with members of the MapAction team during the response to Hurricanes Matthew in 2016 and again during Irma and Maria in September 2017, and from this collaboration, we understood the benefits that their mapping and information management expertise could bring to our own operations.”

We hope that damage caused by this week’s storms is not as severe as that caused by Hurricanes Irma and Maria a year ago, but we are keen to support responders in the region in any way we can.

In addition to the Caribbean storms, we are monitoring Super Typhoon Mangkhut which has the potential to affect 43 million people in the Philippines.

Training information managers in Lao PDR with the AHA Centre

Two MapAction members were in Vientane, Lao PDR, last week, working with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management (AHA Centre). They were helping to deliver an Emergency Rapid Assessment Team (ERAT) Pilot Course on Information Management.

This collaboration follows on from our recent signing of a Memorandum of Intent with the AHA Centre to formalise our joint efforts to help build mapping and information management capacity among humanitarian actors in the ASEAN region, as well as helping them prepare for disasters by putting in place essential geospatial information and resources.

Last week’s course provided our first opportunity to meet and work with information management teams in the region and MapAction volunteers Mark and Tony used the time to coach them on creating mapping products, as well as gain an understanding of their support requirements and working methods.

This work was made possible thanks to the generous support of the U.S. Agency for International Development as part of a programme to improve the use of geospatial analysis and services across the entire humanitarian response sector. 

We are looking forward to many more collaborations with the AHA Centre in future.

MapAction’s largest training exercise of the year

On 8-10 June 2018, MapAction held its annual disaster simulation training exercise for volunteers. This year’s event recreated the chaotic atmosphere of a complex humanitarian emergency with health, food, water and sanitation insecurity in the fictional, war-torn country of Albia.

The aim of the exercise is to help MapAction’s highly skilled mapping volunteers practice different aspects of their vital work helping get the right aid to the right people in a humanitarian emergency. Over 60 MapAction members took part, along with people from a number of other organisations, including the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA), Milton Keynes NHS Hospital Trust, Buckinghamshire Fire & Rescue Service and Save the Children.

The simulation gives the entire team a chance to rehearse every aspect of a typical mission. A continual stream of planned requests, interruptions and and events means that, as in reality, making maps is only one aspect of an effective mission. The Gilded exercise is the largest and longest of 12 annual training courses that MapAction runs for its members every year, of which deployable volunteers are expected to attend at least seven.

Using imagery to best effect in disaster relief

By Alan Mills, MapAction volunteer

Can satellite imagery and UAV data become useful data sources for humanitarian decision making in disaster relief coordination?

Satellite Imagery and data collected by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are increasingly promoted as valuable new information sources to aid humanitarian emergency decision making, but how much have things really changed? MapAction is at the forefront of information management delivery on the ground in humanitarian relief, and the choice of which data we use depends on what is best for how to get aid to affected people. Our primary aim is to inform decision making by mapping for people in a crisis, ensuring the best data is timely in delivery to help those affected. Do satellite imagery or data from unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs make a difference in the field yet? We consider the evidence from our perspective.

People focus is primary in MapAction’s approach – we source the optimal data available to help people, focused around what they need. We don’t use or process data just because we have it in the hope that something good will come. There’s just too much data available to do that. As well as topographic map data, baseline statistics, situation reports and field data, imagery from satellite and unmanned aerial vehicles or UAV (often called drones) is regularly available and has been used in a wide range of emergencies, from cyclones and earthquakes, to migrant crises and munitions explosions. But we have to make decisions on which data to use.

In a recent internal review calculating how much imagery has been used by MapAction in our emergency missions, some fascinating conclusions were drawn. First, we make more use of derived products than we do of original imagery. The most used dataset comes from the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) data flown way back in 2000. Where other elevation data are not available, the SRTM’s digital elevation model data forms a pleasing and useful backdrop to so many maps. It helps responders get a feel for the topography of the disaster affected area and in some cases assists in logistics planning, market analysis and winterisation predictions. SRTM is also easily accessible and can be downloaded to laptops before a deployment starts. Its old, but simple and effective.

Also frequently used are flood extent derivations (primarily from NASA’s Moderate Resolution Image Spectroradiometer – MODIS) and rainfall accumulation models from various sources showing the intensity and longevity of rain in affected areas. MapAction frequently accesses data from other agencies (for example UNOSAT) who have detected damage from imagery, such as after a cyclone or earthquake. Some more moderate use of land cover data or wildfire detection has also been exploited.

Our use of basic visible spectrum imagery has usually been restricted to small areas of interest, as a detailed backdrop against other data (such as in refugee camps) or to highlight conditions before and after a disaster. To date we have not made use of UAV imagery in any of our published maps.

What does this tell us about the use of imagery in the kinds of emergencies MapAction responds to? First it is worth noting the environments in which we often work. We are usually based in the countries where the relief operations are focused, and where ‘normal’ Information Management working conditions do not operate, due to power and IT Comms challenges. We cannot necessarily download large volumes of data due to thin or interrupted internet connections. We have very little time to stitch lots of imagery together, process that raw imagery, or analyse the bands of data into something meaningful. And we are bombarded by multiple requests to process data for a range of relief managers in a rapidly evolving situation, so we work under acute time and technological constraints.

Raw imagery that is bulky, and needs processing and analysing is not best suited to these conditions even if it is handed over on a very large capacity USB stick! Smaller vector based datasets derived from the imagery, or raster data ready-to-travel pre-disaster are much more serviceable.

A further problem with visible spectrum satellite imagery is that it is not appropriate to post disaster scenarios in especially tropical or temperate climates. Cloud or smoke frequently cover the area of interest. Imagery may only be acquired well after its primary purpose was needed and the relief effort has already moved on to a new phase. In certain scenarios remote interpretation can also misclassify the data and without extensive ground verification can at best confuse, at worst mislead the decision making processes on the ground.

UAV claims to solve some of these limitations. The spectrum of UAV technologies emerging in disaster management purport to give timely information and services, including carrying essential medical supplies, surveillance in areas difficult or dangerous to reach by human assessors, capturing data below clouds which obscure the ground from satellites, and mapping damage.

Digging below the hyperbole and excitement which often surrounds a new technology, the reality has been that while the videography has an immediate visual impact and is being widely shown both in the formal and social media, the actual usefulness for information management in the humanitarian relief effort remains to be proved. Current limitations on the technology, whether the lack of flying time by lightweight UAVs, the difficulty in logistics of getting larger vehicles to the affected areas, and for getting permission to fly UAVs in the same zones as helicopters and planes on other relief operations is also hampering effectiveness. UAV operators are learning rapidly that in responses where normality has broken down simple resources such as transport and fuel, let alone material to put together flight plans, can be difficult to obtain and greatly restrict the ability to mobilise.

Case studies for UAVs in the humanitarian sector do exist, but they are more often in disaster preparedness, mitigation and resilience. There are precious few documented examples of UAVs providing useful information to be reliably included in disaster assessment, relief delivery or coordination.

As well as the logistical problems which need to be overcome, an understanding of what humanitarians do, or need, on the ground is too often lacking by enthusiastic UAV advocates. Admittedly this is an omission in many areas of technology being offered to relief operations. As Nick van Praag said in a recent blogs “Absent a clear direction, labs tend to focus on innovation by gadget”.

Humanitarians are not blameless in being slow to explore new solutions, technology or processes, but there is obviously a need for a more open and two-way dialogue to target both the space and UAV sectors’ undoubted talents, resources and goodwill towards humanitarian relief. Humanitarians must be open to testing entrepreneurship and innovation but technicians must listen to the hard-learnt experience of humanitarians in dealing with the complexity, even chaos, desperation and rapidly evolving ground situations in disaster affected locations.

Two encouraging trends suggest a growing maturity in the UAV sector that might soon deliver game-changing information to humanitarians, and make a difference to the suffering of those affected by disasters. One is self-organisation, leading to regulation and cooperation. A single UAV operator testing their kit in the field is not going to help a suffering population. However an array of UAV operators who have resolved key issues in advance will get much attention and praise. Before flying, they will have agreed on issues such as; how to carve up the affected area, which sections to map first, standards of operation, output resolution, how to stitch that data together and extract useful information about damage, logistical bottlenecks, flooded areas, tornado paths, critical infrastructure status, etc., and how to provide that data to humanitarians when they need it.

The emergence of UAViators also gives encouragement. Not only are they sharing best practice and actively seeking ways to coordinate their resources in the field, they are also grappling with the multiple legislative issues in many countries to get permission to fly, avoid hampering any other humanitarian actions and developing a code of conduct for UAV operators on the ground. Potentially they are a one stop shop for humanitarians wanting to find advice on how best to engage with the UAV sector.

Further causes for optimism are targeted improvements to the technology that relieve the logistical bottlenecks in the environment in which UAVs have to work during and after disasters. Better geo-location services routinely found on board UAV platforms, faster and more accurate automated geo-correction processes, longer flight and shorter recharge times, recharging in the field, better broadband (for example from new global satellite arrays), better resolutions, and higher specifications for the lightweight end of the UAV spectrum will all contribute to more effective operations.

Localisation of UAV operations in areas prone to disasters either by national operators or international organisations prepositioning their kit in the right places is also occurring. This localisation, alongside working out legalities and permissions pre-disaster, should hasten deployment times and reduce costs to producing useful information.

A challenge could be set by humanitarian information management officers to give awards – or at least a friendly pat on the back – to those UAV operators who can deliver a seamless, interpreted and compact set of data (e.g. damage assessment) over an affected area – not just where the UAV can fly – when the humanitarians need it (e.g. initial assessments within 72 hours of the disaster occurring) at an effective scale (we may need to see buildings but don’t need to count every dislodged brick).

Even where the above parameters and technical challenges can be met, donors and users should still weigh up the cost-effectiveness of UAV operators in the field gathering huge amounts of data which might be more easily, more cheaply and less disruptively gathered by other sources like satellite or ground surveys. Just because you can gather data at very high resolution and in glorious technicolor with a brand new device, does not mean you should.

Do we make too much fuss of UAVs just because they are new technology? For mappers, is it really just another platform for obtaining remotely sensed data, to take its place along with satellites, space shuttles, aeroplanes, helicopters, balloons, kites and pigeons? Perhaps once humanitarians and social media shakers and movers accept this, they can ignore both the platform and how the data is captured and get down to looking at the information itself and how we can make better use of it.

We have focused above on the UAV sector, but the space sector also needs to be much more aware of the same parameters for good humanitarian information outlined above. In this sector, too, there are plenty of new innovations, which may have the potential to be game-changers. Humanitarians, not just the information management specialists who love all things technological, but field operators and project managers, should be made very aware how fast this sector is transforming and expanding, and help guide it in what are their true information needs. We’re back to needing a more informed dialogue.

Some areas where the space sector will potentially assist are in the exponential growth of platforms, primarily through microsatellites. New radar sensors will literally make us see better with their penetrating gaze through the clouds. While general visible sensors will always have a place, the accessibility, resolution, sensitivity and specificity of physical monitoring sensors; fire detectors, vegetation mappers, water detectors, temperature gauges, will provide very targeted products that humanitarians should tap into.

The challenges for use of space sector services are similar to those in the UAV sector. Are the solutions they provide appropriate to the problem they aim to solve, whether it be measuring the extent of the affected area or helping value the damage to assets? And how cost effective is it to transfer those solutions to the people who need them on the ground so they can make the right decisions, at the right time?

In many ways the list of innovations listed above is nothing new – meteorologists for example will tell you targeted sensors are old news. Radar has been around since 1940s. But it is both the proliferation, the usability and the fast widening access to these resources by non-specialists which is starting to gain purchase in the humanitarian field.

Is there a risk of drowning in a sea of data? Humanitarian data continues to proliferate and responders and information management officers can be overwhelmed by data, even early on in an emergency response. Finding those data can be a challenge, as much as being over-provisioned by well meaning data providers as soon as you declare you are heading for the disaster. Clearing houses, portals and nodes are multiplying almost as fast as data sources. Many offer focused locations to get hold of data, but they vary in quality, structure, searchability, relevance and long term management. As humanitarian mappers, we at MapAction know how frustrating it can be to spend significant time sifting through these sites to get that one set of truly useful data that our customer has requested urgently.

MapAction will continue watching the horizons of technology to see what innovations may make our operations and outputs more effective. We are happy to engage with technologists to build understanding of the needs of humanitarian relief to produce targeted, appropriate and timely solutions. We are happy to replace old solutions with new, such as using more accurate elevation data than SRTM. However they must meet both humanitarian technical requirements – suitable resolution and accuracy, for example – and practical & logistical requirements – working with limited bandwidth, digestible in quick time, interoperable with commonly used systems. We don’t use data sources or services because they are new, but because they are better than anything else.

Ultimately, it is time to change the way we use remotely sensed data in humanitarian response. We do need to shift from technology driven, supply side innovations to an iterative process of system evolution. Where this is successful, humanitarians will clearly express their information needs for getting aid to the right place when it is needed following a disaster, amid what, by their nature, are difficult conditions . And technologists must understand the restricted parameter of these difficult conditions and provide appropriate, streamlined, effective tools.

The situation after a disaster is by its nature chaotic, distressed and difficult to operate within – in short, confusing. Any tool or data source which exists to help within that system should be targeted at alleviating the confusion and ensuring that the affected communities and individuals are at the heart of any solution.
Remotely sensed data do not and will not solve humanitarian information management problems by themselves. Their added value comes from combining these data effectively with other digital map, survey and ground-based information. Simple, focused solutions from technicians will work best – but only where they are interoperable with other data sources, multiple systems and open for use by all responders.

Sudden Onset & Humanitarian Response Mapping Course

In a disaster situation, making rapid sense of the avalanche of information is crucial to an effective response.

MapAction’s practical, three-day Response Mapping course teaches you to use simple, low-cost, open source software and tried and tested field applications to create essential maps, proven to aid key decision-makers in a major crisis.

When: 1 – 3 May, 2018
Or: 9 – 11 October, 2018

Where: MapAction’s offices in Saunderton, Buckinghamshire, UK

Who should take this course?

Sudden onset responders and development practitioners who want to improve their knowledge of mapping, data collection and data visualisation in the context of humanitarian response, as well as people with an interest in data mapping who want to apply their knowledge in a humanitarian context.

What will I learn?

The course will teach you how to carry out basic spatial data collection, spatial analysis and mapping and how to find the necessary free/open-source tools and software needed to set up a GIS project.
Learn how to make maps that help with:
• Field-based navigation and needs assessment
• Identifying areas in priority need of aid and gaps in delivery
• Planning and monitoring programmes
• Support to logistics
• Identifying hazards and security risks
• Reporting, communication and advocacy

All course materials and software will be provided. Computers and GPS units can be loaned if needed, but you are encouraged to bring your own laptop on which open-source software can be installed. During the course you can research data and set up a project around your area of interest, so making it easier to apply what you learn directly to your work.

The course covers:

• Mapping and information management for responders and humanitarian work
• Creating base maps using open source mapping and QGIS software and online data sources
• Creating thematic maps showing humanitarian situations
• Using GPS/smartphones to undertake field data collection

The principal course instructors will be GIS practitioners with MapAction field experience in humanitarian emergencies. MapAction has deployed to over 70 sudden onset/humanitarian disasters and supported as many again remotely. We are a stand-by partner to the UN Disaster Assessment & Coordination (UNDAC) team and we provide mapping training to UN OCHA, UNDAC, INSARAG and many other organisations with responsibility for humanitarian disaster management.

Practicalities, fees and registration

The course will be held at the MapAction office in Saunderton, Buckinghamshire, which is easily reached by train from London and Birmingham. Lunch and refreshments will be provided, as well as one evening meal for all delegates. Costs are as follows:

Course only All inclusive***
Band A: Student / Unemployed / Small Charity* £360 £740
Band B: Self–funding Individuals / Medium Charity** £600 £980
Band C: Large Charity / Commercial & State Organisations £950 £1330

* Defined as having fewer than 25 employees
** Defined as having fewer than 45 employees
*** Course plus local hotel with bed, breakfast and evening meal (Monday evening to Thursday breakfast). Daily taxi transfer to and from hotel. 

Places on this course are limited. To book a place, please here and select ‘tickets’ (subject to Eventbrite booking fee), or email training[at]mapaction.org to book direct.

GIS award for MapAction’s work

USA, 20 July – MapAction was presented with the Humanitarian GIS Award by ESRI in San Diego in July.

The award was received by Andrew Douglas-Bate, MapAction’s Chairman, from Jack Dangermond, President of ESRI Inc. The presentation took place in front of some 12,000 people at ESRI’s International User Conference, on 11 July 2009 in San Diego, California.

Jack Dangermond praised the work of MapAction volunteers who use GIS for good in challenging and sometimes dangerous environments.

ESRI Inc is the world’s largest GIS software and services company. It supports MapAction by providing free licences and support for its powerful software, for MapAction volunteers to use in the field during natural disasters and other humanitarian crises.

 

New GIS field guide

field_guide_cover_110x110UK, 10 June – MapAction has published the first edition of its Field Guide to Humanitarian Mapping. The guide, which is downloadable free, will help aid organisations to use geospatial tools and methods in their work in emergencies. There are tutorials for Google Earth and open-source GIS software. Click here to access the guide.