MapAction Data Science Lab: the story so far

Since its inception MapAction has worked on leveraging technical expertise and geospatial technologies to transform humanitarian decision-making. In 2022, the ‘Data Science Lab’ became an even more integral part of MapAction’s work, adding new staff, resources and projects. 

By Daniel Soares, Head of Data Science, MapAction

The first tentative steps to establish a data science unit at MapAction began in 2020 with one staff data scientist and another volunteer working in partnership with OCHA Centre for Humanitarian Data. The team continued to grow and on a summer night in 2022, the Data Science Lab was officially born. Eighteen months later the team has grown: we now have two staff members and six data science volunteers. Four more are set to join in 2024. This is, of course, without counting our many GIS volunteers with advanced data skills working as data scientists or similar roles in their prestigious day jobs.

READ MORE: A year of collaboration with the Centre for Humanitarian Data

Carola Martens, data science volunteer, taking part in an earthquake simulation to test her deployment capabilities together with geospatial volunteers Fiona Hardie and Claudia Offner. Photo: Daniel Soares

Data projects supporting disaster response 

“At the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (World Bank), I specialise in developing tools for assessing the impacts of natural disasters in various settings. Having joined MapAction I’ve found that it complements this work as it offers me the opportunity to apply my expertise in a different context, where I can contribute both to long-term planning and to direct emergency response.”

Nadia Leonova, MapAction data science volunteer

In the last 18 months our volunteers have done some impressive work, not only on tool development, but on missions leading workshops, as well as supporting our GIS team with disaster response. Below are some examples of tools and projects we’ve been working on.

Rapid flood mapping

The goal of our rapid flood mapping from satellite imagery is to create a tool that is able to estimate flood extents during emergencies using radar satellite imagery. The tool was created by two of our data science volunteers, with Cate Seale developing a Python package that contains all the necessary methods whilst Piet Gerrits worked on equipping the tool with a simple graphical interface. The approach is based on a UN SPIDER tutorial, built using Google Earth Engine. The entire code is naturally open-source and available on GitHUB (GitHub – mapaction/flood-mapping-tool).

Former volunteer and current MapAction Head of Data Science Daniel Soares (left) during the MapAction response to the 2022 Kinshasa floods (DRC) together with an UNDAC team member and a local expert. Photo: MapAction.

READ MORE: MapAction team deploys to Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to support UN response to floods 

In 2021, MapAction engaged in a collaboration with HeiGIT (Heidelberg Institute for Geoinformation Technology): the final goal of this work is to produce tools and workflows that can constitute a resource for MapAction’s deployed or remote team members during emergency response. Our first joint project focused on assessing OpenStreetMap data quality. We’re now working to integrate these quality checks into our internal data pipeline.

READ ALSO: MapAction and HeiGIT partner to further geoinformation innovation

Proximity Tool

As part of the same collaboration with HeiGIT, we’re currently developing a Proximity Tool in order to automate road network analysis and identify remote communities and those potentially cut off during an emergency. This tool can also be used for health accessibility analysis (assessing populations not covered by health facilities within a given road distance).

First prototype of the MapAction Proximity Tool developed in collaboration with HeiGIT’s open route service.

Anticipatory action

MapAction substantially increased its anticipatory action focus in 2023. Our new anticipatory action programme kicked-off in July with GFFO funding new work on several projects geared at enhancing geospatial information management for anticipatory action decision makers. This programme will mainly focus on three areas: enabling adoption by partners through stakeholder landscaping and information management projects (ongoing work with the Philippine Disaster Resilience Foundation); implementation of subnational risk models and working around building sustainability and localisation with partners.

READ ALSO: Updates: The Anticipation Hub, The 11th Global Dialogue Platform on Anticipatory Action

The Data Science Lab is actively mainstreaming anticipatory action into its pipeline for the future. We have already started working on building an INFORM Subnational Risk Index for the Kingdom of Eswatini while scoping support for other countries. Our target is to work on four new INFORM subnational models, while updating eight more, over the next two years. We are also currently scoping and planning new projects in partnership with the UN’s Centre for Humanitarian Data around data solutions for anticipatory action. Stay tuned for more details in 2024.

Data science member Piet Gerrits and MapAction Data Visualiser Rob Baker attend an INFORM Subnational Risk training in Italy together with MapAction geospatial volunteer Leon Baruah in September 2023 ( all MapAction members are in blue t-shirts).

Want to be part of the team?

Our 2023 volunteer recruitment process is now closed but a new one will open in 2024 with opportunities for data scientists, data visualisers, data engineers, software developers and geospatial specialists.

Join our MapAction Humanitarian Data Volunteers group on LinkedIn to receive the latest updates re: recruitment or follow MapAction on Twitter, LinkedIn or Instagram.

READ MORE: MapAction looking for volunteers to unlock information management barriers in humanitarian sector

Ode to a geospatial humanitarian partnership and shared values

From Mexico to South Sudan, Malawi and worldwide, MapAction and CartONG have worked together for nearly a decade to bring geospatial solutions to the humanitarian aid and international development sector. Our underlying core shared values help us support NGOs and aid actors for more impactful assistance.

Image: CartONG.

What happens if information barriers aren’t broken down for humanitarian agencies in emergencies? Food gets sent to the wrong people, search and rescue teams are misinformed, temporary settlements are set up in misguided places. Lives are lost or ruined because the right data was missing.

Breaking down information barriers

At MapAction and CartONG we embrace and live by the same values embedded in a single idea: the application of geospatial technology to improve the quality and impact of humanitarian assistance and development projects. Every map, mapathon, training event, data analysis tool or geospatial element of disaster preparedness we co-strive to create can be the key to getting aid to a stricken community or to understanding and preparing for the worst effects of a drought, flood or health emergency. These shared core values and resources have led to a beautiful cross-channel partnership between UK-based MapAction and France-based CartONG. A partnership that aims to improve the impact of aid actions by providing decision-makers and vulnerable communities with the right data to understand and mitigate any crisis.

Decade-long partnership

Our partnership has already lasted nearly a decade. As part of the Covid-19 response, MapAction seconded staff to help CartONG with the surge of activities in its partnership with Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). Having already worked together for several years on various projects, including as part of the H2H Network, a peer-to-peer humanitarian network, MapAction and CartONG signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to work more closely together in 2020.

READ ALSO: MapAction strengthens partnership with CartONG

READ MORE: CartONG strengthens collaboration with MapAction via the signing of a MoU

CartONG and MapAction have since worked together on a number of different projects. In Mexico, together with UNICEF and the Mexican government, MapAction and CartONG supported the creation of a dashboard aiming to display and monitor real-time information on key education indicators on elementary schools at the national level in order to map COVID-19 affectations before the start of the new school year in 2020. It was created to display and monitor real-time information on key education indicators for all elementary schools. This relied on over 200,000 individual schools uploading their data on a daily basis, and was the first time that this information would be collected and displayed at a national level.

Screenshot from a dashboard on the Mexico project. Image: Screenshot/UNICEF.

READ ALSO: Developing an analytic dashboard for back to school follow-up in Mexico with MapAction

READ MORE: Post-COVID Progress: Helping Mexican schools reopen

In South Sudan, MapAction and CartONG, together with other partners, worked to  identify the data challenges that might slow down ‘final mile’ vaccine delivery in a challenging data environment. One outcome of this work was the Integrated Humanitarian Data Package, that aimed to give quick and easy access to key geographic data that underpins the planning and delivery of vaccination programmes. This pilot health project highlighted the vital role that geospatial technology can play in creating effective healthcare solutions. High quality mapping and data analysis is key to understanding how many people need vaccinating, where they are, and how and where the vaccines can be safely stored and delivered.

READ ALSO: South Sudan data package to support effective and equitable Covid vaccine delivery

In 2023, CartONG and MapAction again used the IHDP to map the outbreak of cholera in Malawi. We are also both partners on the ‘UNICEF Geospatial Hotline’, where interested UN departments can request specific geospatial services from our organisations.

As we look ahead, we know the crises we try to mitigate will become evermore complex and challenging; the funding landscape evermore volatile. That is why our partnership continues to grow and why the alliances we are building with organisations like H2H, UNICEF and Start Network are so vital. We will soon also be announcing a new and exciting joint-project linked to health in West Africa. More on that soon.

We both remain committed to continue to deliver capacity building events and projects worldwide to strengthen disaster preparedness and improve the impact of humanitarian assistance.

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