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