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

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.