Training Caribbean disaster managers

We are proud to be supporting the delivery of an online course in crisis mapping in the Caribbean this month. The training course will involve around 50 disaster management professionals from across the Caribbean and is in partnership with the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA), with input from the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT). 

This is the second time the online course has been run, and we used our extensive deployment and training experience in the design and development of it.

Screenshot of GeoCRIS
Screenshot of the GeoCRIS showing a map of part of Western Haiti with several map layers selected

As well as learning the principles of disaster mapping for response and resilience and OpenStreetMap data entry, the participants are practicing effective use of the GeoCRIS. This is the new regional repository for geospatial data needed for risk and hazard mapping, disaster preparedness and response operations. As MapAction was involved in setting up the GeoCRIS, we are well placed to design and deliver this training.

The month-long course also includes a disaster simulation exercise in which the students will have the opportunity to deploy their newly acquired skills in a realistic emergency scenario. Additionally, two members of MapAction’s Caribbean volunteer team who have both recently been involved in the response to the La Soufrière volcanic eruption will be running a live session to share their real-world experiences of emergency mapping in the region and answer questions.

We’re grateful to USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance (BHA) for funding this activity as part of our ongoing programme to improve the ways in which geographical information systems (GIS), mapping and spatial analysis are used in humanitarian emergencies.

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.

Moonshot part 2: the slow data scramble

By Juan Duarte, MapAction Technical Director

When MapAction triggers an emergency response, the first step is for a team of staff and volunteers to begin what is known as a “data scramble”. This is the process of gathering, organising, checking, and preparing the data required to make the first core maps that emergency response teams will need, which will also be used as the basis for subsequent situational mapping.

Traditionally, the aim was to complete this data collection as quickly as possible, to get as much data as possible that was relevant to the emergency. However, due to the time-sensitive nature of this work, the team is often unable to dissect in detail the different data source options, processes, and decisions involved as they ready the data for ingestion into maps.

What if they weren’t constrained by time during the data scramble? What if they could deconstruct the procedure and examine the data source selection, scrutinise the processing applied to every data type, and explore the ways that these steps could be automated? To answer these questions, the volunteers at MapAction, with support from the German Federal Foreign Office, have been tackling a stepping-stone project leading towards automation, dubbed the “slow data scramble”. We called it this because it is a methodical and meticulous deconstruction of a rapid data scramble as carried out in a sudden-onset emergency.

Data gaps

As part of our Moonshot, MapAction is looking to automate the creation of nine core maps that are needed in every response, freeing up vital time for volunteers during an emergency, and, perhaps more importantly, identifying data issues and gaps well before the onset of an emergency. Towards this end, we have just released version 1.1 of our software MapChef, which takes processed data and uses it to automatically create a map. However, even with MapChef up and running, there is still a large gap in our pipeline: how do you get the data in the first place? How do you make sure it’s in the right state to go into the map? And which data do you actually need?

The volunteer team created and led a project intended to answer precisely the above questions, with the goal of scoping out the pipeline. This would include writing the code for completing the above operations, although not yet packaging things together in a smooth way – that is saved for a future pipeline project.

Selecting the right components

The first step was to determine what data is required to produce the core maps. The volunteers identified a list of 23 ingredients that make up these maps, which we call “data requirements”. These range from administrative boundaries to roads, and from airports to hillshading (a technique for creating relief maps). To complicate matters, each data artefact had multiple possible sources. For example, administrative boundaries could come from the Common Operational Datasets (CODs, distributed by the Humanitarian Data Exchange), the Database of Global Administrative Areas (GADM), or geoBoundaries

“The scale and extent of data available for just a single country administrative area alone is staggering.”

James Wharfe, MapAction volunteer

Next, the team needed to address how to obtain the data and ready it for further processing. Normally, when volunteers make maps by hand, they go to the website associated with each artefact, manually download it, and tweak it by hand until it is ready to be used in a map. However, with the pipeline this all needs to be automated. 

To approach this considerable undertaking, the team divided up the work into small, digestible tasks, meeting fortnightly to discuss progress, answer each other’s questions, and assign new tasks. This work continued diligently for seven months, at the end of which they had a functional and documented set of code snippets capable of automatically downloading and transforming the data required for all artefacts. 

Overcoming challenges

There were numerous challenges along the way that the team needed to overcome. Understanding the differences between the various data sources proved a significant hurdle. “The scale and extent of data available for just a single country administrative area alone is staggering,” noted volunteer James Wharfe. (Indeed, this data landscape is so complex that it merits its own post – stay tuned for a blog about administrative boundaries as part of our upcoming “Challenges of…” series.)

One particular data source that seemed to crop up everywhere was OpenStreetMap (OSM). Almost all of the data requirements in the slow data scramble are available from OSM, making it a key data source. However, given the sheer detail and size of the OSM database – 1,37 terabytes as of 1 Feb, 2021(source) – there are several difficulties involved when working with the data.

For the download step, the team decided to invoke the Overpass API, and create a Python method to abstract the complex query language down to some simple YAML files with OSM tag lists. Next, the downloaded data needed to be converted from the OSM-specific PBF format to a shapefile, which is the type of data expected by MapChef. Several solutions for this exist: to name a few, Imposm, PyDriosm, Osmosis, OSM Export Tool, and Esy OSM PBF. For this project, we decided to use GDAL, however, we certainly plan on exploring the other options, and hope to eventually host our own planet file. 

Code control

Even though the goal of the slow data scramble was not to produce production-quality code, the team still used Git to host their version-controlled code. According to Steve Penson, the volunteer leading the project, “The collaborative and explorative nature of the project meant Git was incredibly useful. With each volunteer tackling significantly different challenges, establishing a strong code control setup made our weekly reviews far easier.”

The team also used the opportunity to extend their Python skills, with a particular focus on GeoPandas, which enables some of the more intricate data transformations that are normally performed by mainstream desktop GIS tools. 

Additionally, the group used this work to explore the concept of DAGs, directed acyclical graphs.  This term refers to the building blocks of any pipeline: a recipe, or series of steps, that you apply to your data. There are scores of packages available to assist with pipeline development, but to start, the team decided to use a simple workflow management system called Snakemake. Snakemake works by using Makefiles to connect the expected input and output files across multiple pipeline stages. Although, in the end, the team decided it was not the best solution for scaling up to the real pipeline (which is now being developed with Airflow), they agreed that using Snakemake was a great stepping stone to becoming familiar with this key concept. 

Working together

Finally, before COVID-19 hit, MapAction’s dedicated volunteers were accustomed to meeting in person once a month – a commitment that led to many enjoyable shared moments and close friendships. This positive and much-loved aspect of being a volunteer at MapAction has unfortunately been hindered by the pandemic. Although still conducted fully remotely, the slow data scramble offered the chance to regularly meet, share expertise, motivate and encourage each other, and work together. Volunteer Dominic Greenslade said it well:  “MapAction volunteers are amazing people, and the ability to spend so much time getting to further these friendships was a great bonus”.

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.

Hurricanes Eta & Iota – how maps are helping

by Jon Hanson, Head of Grants Income at MapAtion

This StoryMap explains how some of the over 100 maps MapAction created following Hurricanes Eta and Iota in Central America in November 2020 are being used to help get aid to people that need it. Click here to view it in full screen.

Emergency support for hurricane-hit Guatemala

A three-person MapAction team is today travelling to Guatemala following extreme flooding and catastrophic landslides in 12 of 22 of the country’s administrative departments caused by Hurricanes Eta and Iota. Ten departments have declared a state of emergency and the Guatemalan government has requested foreign assistance. Around one million Guatemalans are estimated to be directly affected and at least 53 people are known to have died.

The devastating storms have come on the back of social and economic hardship caused and exacerbated by COVID, unemployment and population displacement. The flooding has caused widespread destruction of crops and livestock and around 5,000 wells have been contaminated. There is a high risk of disease outbreak and many people are in urgent need of shelter.

Map of Guatemala showing populations potentially exposed to high and very high impact based on multi-hazard forecasting

The MapAction team, which is deploying at the request of the Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), will be helping to gather and map information about the evolving situation on the ground, as well as the aid being provided by different agencies, so that gaps can be identified and addressed.

This mission brings the total number of MapAction personnel working with OCHA teams on the impacts of Eta and Iota in the Central American region to nine, with additional support from across our wider team. In addition to the Guatemalan team, a five-person MapAction team has been providing full remote emergency support to OCHA’s Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean (ROLAC) since 6 November and another team member has been seconded to ROLAC full time since September to assist with hurricane preparedness and other humanitarian issues across the region.

We’re grateful to the German Federal Foreign Office for supporting our response, as well as to the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the UK FCDO and Rotary clubs around the UK 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.

What does ‘Data’ mean to MapAction?

What is MapAction’s ‘humanitarian data landscape?’ At MapAction, we’re working to put data at the centre of how we provide products and services to the humanitarian sector. MapAction’s data scientist, Monica Turner, recently posted  about the work she does in this new role. However, data is a big (and sometimes loaded) term. So what does ‘data’ mean to MapAction? We asked Hannah Ker, MapAction’s Data Scientist whilst Monica is on maternity leave, to explain. 

During a humanitarian crisis, it is vitally important for responders to have information such as which areas are most affected, where vulnerable populations exist and where relevant infrastructure & services (such as healthcare facilities) are located. MapAction provides information products (such as maps) to our partners to help them address these information needs. Unsurprisingly the vast majority of data that we work with at MapAction is geospatial. We aim to use geospatial techniques, such as cartography, to make complex data rapidlly accessible to those responding to humanitarian crises.

The ‘Layers of data’ page (see diagram below) from our Example Product Catalogue provides a useful framework for thinking about how many different datasets are processed and combined into a meaningful final product.

Firstly, we can think of the data that is input to our basemap or initial reference map of a given area. This data often reflects features such as administrative boundaries, land elevation, settlements, and transportation infrastructure. Secondly, we have baseline data that provides demographic information about the area of interest, such as population numbers and numbers of schools. 

Our last data layer includes situational information that is relevant to the humanitarian context at hand. The kinds of data relevant for this layer can vary significantly depending on the circumstances. This data is also likely to be the most dynamic and temporally sensitive. For example, it may be used to show change over time as a crisis evolves.

All of this data can come from a variety of sources. The Humanitarian Data Exchange (HDX), developed and maintained by the UN OCHA Centre for Humanitarian Data, is a repository that holds over 17,000 datasets from more than 1,300 different sources. These datasets come from what we might think of as ‘authoritative’ sources of information, such as the World Bank or the World Food Programme.

In particular, MapAction frequently uses the Common Operational Datasets of Administrative Boundaries (COD-AB) that are published and maintained by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). It can be challenging to access complete and up-to-date administrative boundary data, so the CODs attempt to provide standardised, high quality data that can be used to support humanitarian operations.

OpenStreetMap (OSM) also provides a valuable source of geospatial data. This ‘Wikipedia of maps’ is an entirely crowdsourced map of the world. In theory, anyone, anywhere in the world (with an internet connection) can contribute to OSM. At MapAction, we use OSM as a source of data for features such as settlements and transportation infrastructure. MapAction is a partner of the Missing Maps project, hosted by OSM which seeks to crowd source the gaps in maps in available maps.

So why can’t we just use maps that already exist, like Google Maps?, one might ask. Why all these complex data layers? Why spend so much time finding data when it’s already all there?

Platforms such as Google Maps, Waze, and Apple Maps are commonly used as day-to-day navigation tools for people in many parts of the world. However, such existing tools do not provide the flexibility that is often required when managing and presenting geospatial data in humanitarian scenarios. As these tools are privately-developed, individuals and organisations do not always have the ability to manipulate or style the underlying data to suit their needs. These platforms were not created specifically for humanitarian use-cases, and so may not always include the information that meets the operational requirements of humanitarian contexts, such as locations of damaged buildings or the extent of a flood.

OSM’s Humanitarian map style, for example, shows some of the unique data styling that may be required in humanitarian contexts. Moreover, there are many parts of the world with human settlements that are not present (or poorly represented) on existing maps, as is demonstrated by efforts from organisations such as the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team and the Missing Maps initiative. These challenges mean that there is no existing ‘one size fits all’ mapping platform that is capable of providing and presenting all of the information that is needed in humanitarian contexts. 

Finding high quality geospatial data is an ongoing challenge for us at MapAction. Geospatial data quality is a multifaceted concept, and includes dimensions such as up-to-dateness, positional accuracy, logical consistency, and completeness. The image below, for example, shows a geometry problem that we often face with administrative boundary data. Notice the gap in the border between Chad and the Central African Republic. Lack of standardisation in this data between different countries and organisations, or out of date data can result in such misalignment. Due to the political sensitivity that is associated with boundary data, it is important to ensure that the data that we use is as accurate as possible. 

Our ongoing work around the Moonshot project seeks to develop tools that can help us to automatically detect and address quality issues such as these. Keep an eye out for future blog posts where we will address some of these technical challenges in greater detail. 

At the end of the day, we’re working to make complex situations better understood. Humanitarian crises are incredibly complex, and accordingly, can be associated with complex datasets and information. By selecting high quality datasets and visualising them in clear and accessible ways, we intend for our humanitarian partners to be able to make informed decisions and deliver effective aid to those in need. 

MapAction’s Data Scientist is funded by the German Federal Foreign Office (GFFO), but the views and opinions above do not necessarily represent those of the GFFO.

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.

How data science can help release emergency funds before a crisis

head shot of Monica Turner smiling to camera

Although data science is still a relatively new field, its potential for the humanitarian sector is vast and ever-changing. We caught up with one of MapAction’s Data Scientists Monica Turner to discover how data science is evolving, the impact of COVID-19 on her work and how predictive modelling could see disaster funding being released before a disaster has occurred. 

Interview by Karolina Throssell, MapAction Communications Volunteer

How did you get into data science?

I have a background in Astrophysics but wanted to transition into data science, so I started volunteering with 510 global which is part of the Netherlands Red Cross. This was my first experience in the humanitarian sector, and I was immediately hooked. After working briefly as a data scientist at a technology company, I began working at MapAction in March 2020. As part of my work, I am seconded to the Centre for Humanitarian Data in the Hague, which is managed by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

What is the role of data science at MapAction?

Even though one of MapAction’s primary products is maps, these are created by combining different data sets. So, while the explicit presence of a data scientist at the organisation is new, MapAction has fundamentally always been doing data science on some level. With this new role, the hope is to both formalise the current data science practices, and expand our analytical capability, ultimately shifting our role from data consumer to having an active role in the development and improvement of humanitarian data sets. 

As a data scientist, you often have to wear many hats – from data cleaning to model development to visualisation. With the Moonshot project, we are looking to automate the creation of seven to nine key maps for 20 countries. One of my first tasks is to design and build a pipeline that downloads, transforms, and checks the quality of all the different data sets that make up these key maps. The details of this pipeline will be the subject of a future blog post. 

How has COVID-19 impacted on your work?

One of MapAction’s strengths is the field work that we are able to do during an emergency as well as the remote support we provide. However, as COVID-19 has limited the ability to travel, the paradigm has shifted and we need to rethink how we respond to emergencies overall. In particular, we are working to expand the types of products that we offer to our partners, as the demand increases for more remote-oriented products such as web-based dashboards. 

At the Centre for Humanitarian data, in collaboration with the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, we’ve been developing a model relating to the spread of COVID, to help low- and middle-income countries plan their responses.

A female medic wearing a facemask takes the temperature of a smiling man before he enters a clinic
Photo: Trócaire 

One of the main challenges of modelling COVID-19 is the novelty of the disease. Since there is no historical data, model validation becomes much more challenging. Additionally, the number of cases and deaths is a crucial input to the model. With higher income countries, more testing is done so the data we need is there, however the availability and quality of this data in low- and middle-income countries poses a further hurdle. Nevertheless, even with these caveats it is still very valuable to provide low- and middle-income countries with a tailored scenario-building tool for developing their COVID response.

Where is data science heading?

Predictive analytics will play a much larger role in the future of data science. The UN is currently working on a huge project to provide funding for predictive models that will enable it to release funding from the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), to help communities prepare and protect themselves from disasters before they occur. After a successful pilot project in Bangladesh, we plan to extend our model validation to other types of disasters such as cholera and food insecurity.

At MapAction, the Moonshot will lead a shift towards preparedness and enable us to develop methods to assess the completeness and quality of the data going into our maps. Our hope is that with this emphasis on data analysis, we will be able to provide meaningful contributions to a wide array of humanitarian data sets. Additionally, we are hoping to build an analytics team, and will be recruiting data science volunteers in early 2021, so check our website and sign up to our newsletter to find out how you can apply. And if you can contribute in other ways to our data science work, please contact us!

MapAction’s Data Scientist is funded by the German Federal Foreign Office.

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 helps response to Cyclone Harold

While much of the world was focused on battling COVID-19 last week, a powerful tropical cyclone swept through the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, and Tonga, causing significant damage and loss of life.

With gusts over 170mph and rainfall of 250-450mm, Tropical Cyclone Harold was the worse storm to hit Vanuatu since Cyclone Pam in 2015, and, in some areas, damage has been significantly worse. Entire villages are reported to have been destroyed in the northern parts of the island chain.

In addition to the devastation caused by the storm, social distancing measures had to be temporarily lifted in some areas to enable people to gather in emergency shelters, and this may exacerbate the impacts of COVID-19 in the region. Furthermore, the crisis is largely remaining under the radar, given the ongoing pandemic, meaning little funding is being made available to assist the affected islands, despite tremendous need. What international aid there is has been hampered and delayed by the virus.

MapAction is already delivering support to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in the Asia Pacific region (ROAP) to help the regional COVID-19 response. We have diverted some of this effort to respond to the emergency caused by Cyclone Harold, creating situation maps for Fiji and Tonga. These are helping humanitarian teams prioritise and coordinate aid. We will continue to provide assistance as needed.

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.

COVID-19 government measures dashboard

We’ve helped ACAPS to put together a dashboard showing government measures being taken around the world. Data can be filtered by region, country, type of measure and timeframe.

Screenshot of government measures dashboard

We will be updating this twice a week. In the meantime ACAPS, MapAction and other organisations are looking at further topics to develop analysis for. 

Report into COVID-19 government measures worldwide

Map of countries with COVID-19 public health measures as of 17/3/2020

The first bulletin in a series about measures adopted by governments in response to COVID-19, as well as potential impacts on ongoing humanitarian operations, has now been published by ACAPS.

MapAction is collaborating with ACAPS and other partners to provide analysis, maps and visualisations of the pandemic as it evolves to assist governments and aid agencies in their response.

Map of countries with social distancing measures as of 17/3/2020

Supporting ACAPS’ analyses of COVID-19 government responses

Since last week, we have been working with our partner ACAPS, the independent humanitarian analysis organisation, to support their efforts looking at the longer term humanitarian effects of COVID-19.

Every Wednesday, starting today, ACAPS will be publishing a weekly bulletin about government measures around the world in relation to the virus. MapAction is assisting this work with analysis, mapping and visualisations of the collected data. The data is also being published via the Humanitarian Data Exchange (HDX).

This information will enable teams planning the response to the pandemic around the world to see what steps are being taken in different countries and what the impacts of those measures are.

Colour in mapping

By Jo Pratt, MapAction’s Communications Lead

March 9-10 is Holi, an ancient Hindu festival celebrating the arrival of spring with a riot of colour. To mark the occasion I asked the MapAction members for their interesting tips, facts, examples and experiences – anything they felt moved to share – about the use and importance of colour in mapping.

A few people sent me examples of maps they’ve created in which colour was particularly important in communicating and differentiating between different layers of information. Colour can be used to increase the amounts and types of information a map contains without reducing its readability. Divergent colours are often used to differentiate between types of data shown, while sequential colour scales can show degrees of prevalence of a particular feature.

MapAction’s Geospatial Services Coordinator, Matt Sims, shared with me a map of South Sudan he produced in 2014 for our partner ACAPS. He used divergent colours to differentiate between layers of information including data about food security, health and internally displaced people (IDP) movements. At the same time, a sequential colour scale gives an immediate visual indicator of the severity of the food insecurity in each county.

In this colourful 2017 language map of Borno, Eastern Nigeria (below), MapAction volunteer Mark Gillick used divergent colours to show at a glance which groups of IDPs were in locations with a local language other than their own. The map also shows the size and location of each community.

“This is the most colourful MapAction map I’ve made.”
MapAction volunteer, Mark Gillick

Mark also flagged up the use of divergent colour to enhance communication in the London Underground map and the map below from 1895 of different nationalities in Chicago, USA.

1895 map of nationalities in Chicago

MapAction’s Head of Training and Learning Emma Mumford pointed me to a lovely looking and rather fascinating thematic map of age demographics in Switzerland created by mapping blogger Timo Grossenbacher. The sequential colour scale shows how different age groups are clustered in certain areas. It also demonstrates why yellow is generally taken to be a highlight colour, as the yellow and orange areas stand out against the purples.

Thematic map of age demographics in Switzerland

Colour considerations and cautions

I had an interesting chat with MapAction volunteer duo Becky and Andy Kervell. As well as flagging up ColorBrewer as a useful mapping resource, they talked me through some of the issues to bear in mind when thinking about colour choices.

  • Colour blindness – this is quite a common problem. Most people with colour-vision deficiency have difficulty distinguishing between red and green. ‘Red-green’ deficiency affects one in 12 men and one in 200 women globally and can make it hard for them to tell the difference between reds, oranges, yellows, browns and greens. They may also have difficulty distinguishing between shades of purple and may not be able to tell red from black. ‘Blue-yellow’ deficiency – affecting vision of blues, greens and yellows – is another form of colour blindness that is much rarer. This Brilliant Maps blog explores what maps look like to people with colour-vision deficiency.
  • Format, use and context – colours look different on screen compared to paper, so the ways in which a map is distributed and used should affect colour choice. If a map is intended to be desktop printed, questions around the quality and availability of printers and inks arise. If a colour map is printed in black and white, will it still be fit for purpose? If a map is shown via a projector, will details be visible?
  • Cultural significances – colours have different meanings and associations in different parts of the world. For example, in some cultures, death is associated with black; in others, with white. Red can be associated with danger, good fortune or grief and death, among other things, depending on where you are. This is one good reason why team diversity, as well as awareness of and consideration for different cultures, is important in mapping – as elsewhere in life.

Another interesting fact I learned in the course of compiling this blog is that mappers use up a lot of blue ink. Because – oceans. According to MapAction’s logistics manager Andy Punter, who looks after all the kit used by our teams on deployment, we get through three or four times as many cyan ink cartridges as any other colour. So, if you ever come across a map with feathering around a land mass to denote the sea instead of a solid block of blue, thriftiness could be the reason.

This is the first in an irregular series of blogs in which we use an international event such as Holi, as an excuse (as if one were needed) to celebrate the diversity of mappers, maps and mapping.

MapAction and Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team formalise partnership

MapAction's LIz Hughes and Tyler Radford of HOT signing an MoU

This week, we signed a Memorandum of Understanding to formalise our ongoing working relationship with our partner Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) at Humanitarian Networks Partnerships Week in Geneva.

HOT is an international team dedicated to humanitarian action and community development through open mapping. MapAction and HOT have been collaborating for some time to ensure that humanitarian teams have the maps they need to locate and assist people affected by emergencies, particularly in remote places.

MapAction's LIz Hughes and Tyler Radford of HOT shaking hands and smiling at each other
MapAction’s Liz Hughes and Tyler Radford of HOT

In 2017, MapAction became a member of Missing Maps, a joint venture founded by HOT, the British Red Cross, the American Red Cross and Médicin Sans Frontières to map the most vulnerable places in the world. In 2019, we worked with HOT during the responses to Cyclone Idai in Mozambique and Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas. You can read more about our joint activities in this article by MapAction volunteer Steve Penson.

We look forward to many more years of fruitful collaboration together.

Diversity and MapAction

Video interview

Earlier this year, MapAction’s CEO Liz Hughes blogged about diversity in the humanitarian and technology/GIS sectors and why it’s important. Since then, we’ve been working to evolve our practices in this area.

MapAction volunteer Bel Hewitt has been involved in shaping our diversity and inclusion policy and helping us to work towards our objectives. The policy outlines MapAction’s commitments, accountability and actions on all aspects of diversity.

Bel lives in the Philippines, so we took the opportunity to catch up with her for an informal chat about where we’re at with it and where we want to get to when she stopped by our UK office on a holiday visit today.

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.

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.

New colleagues strengthen our Caribbean team

Earlier this year we embarked on a round of volunteer recruitment to find mapping and geographical information system (GIS) experts living and working in the Caribbean. The aim was to expand our small team in the region to ensure we are always well placed to help prepare for and respond to disasters and emergencies across the Caribbean, working with our close partner the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA). This includes pre-positioning personnel when necessary to provide mapping and data support in the event of severe tropical storms.

We are delighted to now welcome three exceptionally high-calibre volunteers who bring a tremendous amount of additional knowledge, expertise and energy to an already very strong Caribbean team.

Deanesh Ramsewak

Deanesh lives in Trinidad and is a lecturer and researcher at the Centre for Maritime and Ocean Studies (CMOS) of the University of Trinidad and Tobago. He teaches GIS and remote sensing and has recently worked on a multi-agency research project funded by NASA, using drones for studying coastal ecosystems. His work has been published in international and regional journals and he is a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

My interest in MapAction began after the devastating 2010 Haiti earthquake. The response by MapAction volunteers to it, as well as to other Caribbean disasters since then, inspired me to join the humanitarian effort.

Deanesh Ramsewak

Deanesh also volunteers as a mentor for the Caribbean Youth Science Forum (CYSF), the longest standing non-formal STEM education programme in the region, as well as for a local non-profit organisation called Restore a Sense of I Can (RSC) which seeks to effect change through technology and education. In his free time he enjoys travelling, meeting new people, swimming and yoga.

Lavern Ryan

Lavern is from the beautiful Caribbean island of Montserrat where she lives and works as a GIS Manager. She loves travelling, meeting new people and learning about new cultures. She especially loves star gazing!

Following the events of the 2017 hurricane season, I wanted to use my skills more to help mitigate against the impacts of disasters. When the call came for Caribbean GIS professionals to join MapAction, I was further inspired. I am passionate about GIS and I want to use my knowledge and skills to help people when they are most in need and to help to save lives. MapAction provides the platform for me to do just that!

Lavern Ryan

Mike Clerveaux

Mike is currently the Hazard Mitigation and GIS Specialist within the Department of Disaster Management and Emergencies (DDME), Turks and Caicos Islands. He is an Urban and Regional Planner by profession and holds a Masters degree in Built Environment with a specialisation in Geomatics. He joined the Disaster Management Team in 2016 and that same year was part of the CDEMA Regional Response Mechanism that was deployed to the Bahamas following Hurricane Matthew, which was when he first encountered MapAction.

Prior to joining DDME, Mike was a volunteer in Damage and Needs Assessment (DANA) as well as lead facilitator for them. Outside of Disaster Management, Mike is happily married with three girls. He enjoys carpentry and coaching basketball.

“Ever since Hurricane Matthew, I was eager to be a part of MapAction. I look forward to serving in this new capacity and being a part of the MapAction family.”

Mike Clerveaux