MapAction supports St Vincent volcano emergency response

MapAction is providing mapping and information management support to the La Soufriere volcano emergency on the island of St Vincent, in response to requests from both CDEMA (Caribbean Disasters & Emergency Management Agency) and UN OCHA’s regional office. 

Explosive eruptions from La Soufriere since April 9th have caused ash clouds to cover much of St Vincent, Bequia and southern St Lucia, as well large parts of Barbados.  Pyroclastic flows have descended from the mountain top, after it was confirmed that the volcanic dome had collapsed. 

Monitoring of the volcano is difficult as existing seismic stations were knocked out and it became dangerous to travel into the area. By the 7 of April, circa 16000 residents had been advised to evacuate following early signs of activity.  The incident has already caused serious need for shelter, PPE and fresh water and is developing. Flooding is now reportedly compounding the situation.

MapAction is currently supporting the situation remotely, having already assembled a dedicated team of three volunteers and one staff member, located in Montserrat, the Turks & Caicos Islands (both in the Caribbean), New Zealand and the UK respectively. All members of the MapAction team will be working remotely due to the travel and other complications of the COVID-19 pandemic, and there are no current plans to send a geospatial team to the affected area, although two of the team are based in the Caribbean region.

The direct mission costs are being met by the German Federal Foreign Office. MapAction’s response capacity has been supported by UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) and the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and we have been working extensively in the Caribbean region on disaster preparedness work thanks to USAID Bureau of Humanitarian Affairs. 

The mapping techniques used in the 3D web mab above are based on recent work by MapAction and the University of Edinburgh, which pioneered 3D interactive webmapping for planning and response to volcanic hazards.

Many of MapAction’s maps and other information products relating to this emergency will be available here as the emergency develops. 

MapAction supports response to Equatorial Guinea explosions

Map showing areas of evacuation and damaged building in Bata, Equatorial Guinea as at 13 March 2021

Following a series of explosions on 7th March at an armoury of the Nkuantoma Gendarmerie and military barracks in Bata, the economic capital of Equatorial Guinea, The United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) reached out to MapAction to support the response. Over 100 people were reported to have been killed and 700 injured in the blasts which caused significant damage to buildings and infrastructure.

Using learning and expertise from previous missions, including the major explosion last August in Beirut and a similar incident in Brazzaville in 2012, MapAction will be on hand to help remotely as long as needed.

We are working with the UN Assessment & Analysis (A&A) Cell to provide impact and situational mapping of the explosion areas with a focus on shelter, health and water, sanitation & hygiene (WASH). A&A cells are responsible for the coordination of needs assessments and analysis during sudden-onset emergencies to inform humanitarian partners, such as governments, aid agencies, NGOs etc.

UKAid logo

This response is being supported by the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO). MapAction’s response capability is also supported by the Netherland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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.

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 provides support to Hurricane Eta and Typhoon Goni responses

MapAction teams are in action again, this time providing support to the humanitarian responses to Hurricane Eta in Central America and Tropical Typhoon Goni in South East Asia.

Hurricane Eta – A coordinated team of MapAction GIS volunteers is working remotely in support of UN OCHA’s Regional Office for Latin America and Caribbean (ROLAC) as they coordinate the humanitarian response across Central America in the wake of Hurricane Eta. Over 1.8 million people have been affected across Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Belize. 

Honduras: Tropical Storm Eta Municipalities affected (November 7, 2020) – Honduras

The team are already delivering mapping support for the immediate aftermath of the hurricane and are preparing to deliver 3W and flood mapping.  It is anticipated that further support may also be required with this fast developing situation and we are standing by for requests. You can see the maps and other products produced so far here. You can see further MapAction-aided products on the Reliefweb site.  

Hurricane ETA is a Category 4 hurricane that made landfall in Nicaragua on Tuesday Nov 3rd and moved north through Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and then Belize. Eta is now a Tropical Storm and is due to hit Cuba in the next 24 hours. The Central American region has suffered widespread flooding, storm surges and landslides. Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama are under red alerts. Guatemala has also been severely affected. For further situation information see the most recent OCHA needs snapshot and Relief Web update.

MapAction is grateful to the German Federal Foreign Office for supporting our response, as well as to the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the UK FCDO for their continued support of MapAction’s response capacity. 

Tropical Cyclone Goni – This typhoon is affecting people across the Philippines and Vietnam. A member of the team is supporting MapAction partner the AHA Centre (ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management) as it coordinates the response. You can see the maps and other products here. You can see further products on the Reliefweb site

As UN assessment teams make their way to some of the hardest hit areas, a clearer picture of Typhoon Goni’s impact (known locally as Rolly), which made landfall in the Philippines on Sunday, is emerging. The UN OCHA office reported that as of 6 November, around 1.2 million people (more than 312,500 families) across seven regions have been directly impacted by the disaster. “As more than 21,000 homes were destroyed, many families will remain in long-term displacement,” it reported.

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.

Supporting refugees in Northwest Syria

Earlier this year, MapAction was asked by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) to send a team to Turkey. Their mission was to provide assistance to humanitarian teams there and in Northwest Syria who are supporting the very large numbers of refugees and internally displaced people that arrived in the region during the first three months of the year following an upsurge of fighting in Aleppo.

The request was to work with two groups of organisations collaborating to collectively manage around 900 refugee camps; the Camp Coordination and Camp Management (CCCM) Cluster, and the Shelter /Non-Food Item (SNFI) Cluster.

Days before the MapAction team was due to travel, the UK and Turkey went into lockdown. Consequently, the team was compelled to switch rapidly to a remote-working approach.

Since late March, they have been helping the Clusters to get a better understanding of the locations and sizes of the camps and the needs of the people arriving and living in them. Camps vary enormously; from just a few tents to up to 93 separate sites within a single camp, and from long-term, static settlements to temporary ones.

As well as cross referencing, checking and cleaning data about camp locations received from numerous sources, the MapAction team developed some simple tools to help do this quickly and easily in future, which will also have benefits for other areas of work undertaken by the Clusters. One tool validates the location coordinates of camps recorded by teams within Syria, another matches them to Syrian administrative areas.

The MapAction team has also been locating aerial images of the camps on OpenStreetMap and using these to develop 900 map polygons showing the shape and size of each camp. As well as helping the Clusters to understand and meet the existing needs of people in the camps, this work will help to inform them about their population densities, which is particularly important in the context of COVID-19.

Updated to add: This project was shortlisted for a DataIQ Award for ‘Best use of data by a not-for-profit’.

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.

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.

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.

Hurricane Dorian strikes the Bahamas

A MapAction team is en route to the Bahamas to support the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA) and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) as they coordinate the response to Hurricane Dorian. Our UK support base has already been working over the weekend on vital maps and data.

With windspeeds over 160mph, the category 5 Hurricane is the strongest to hit the Bahamas since records began. It is moving slowly westards across the Abaco Islands and Grand Bahama.

We are grateful to the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) and the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs for enabling us to help provide the geospatial input that’s needed to get aid to where it’s most needed as quickly as possible.

Our thoughts are with all those affected.

MapAction supports Cyclone Idai response

On Friday 14 March, Cyclone Idai made landfall along the south-eastern coast of Africa. With sustained wind speeds of 120mph and heavy rain, it is now recognised as one of the most intense recorded weather events to hit the region. Many affected areas were already heavily waterlogged, making the overall effect even worse and causing extensive flooding.

Hundreds of people are known to have died and hundreds of thousands of people to have been affected, with casualties across Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Madagascar. Many people have been left without shelter, clean water or food.

MapAction initially sent a three-person Emergency Response Team to Mozambique on 20 March at the request of United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) Team. A fourth team member followed a few days later when it became clear that more in-country support was needed. Three MapAction members are currently based in Beira, the city that took the full brunt of the Cyclone, suffering catastrophic damage, and a fourth is in Chimoio, to the West of Mozambique. A further team rotation will travel out this weekend.

MapAction’s highly specialist team is working at the heart of the planning and coordination of the response, providing vital situation maps and information management services needed by all agencies to get help to where it’s most needed, as quickly as possible.


Among other things, the MapAction team in Mozambique is providing analysis of aerial assessments of the affected area, working with UNOCHA, the Red Cross and Save the Children. Photo by Luke Caley

They are supported in this work by our wider team of technical volunteers and specialist staff, who have been working remotely on flood extent modelling and on gathering and sharing useful reference data to help response teams since the disaster happened.

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

[Update: video blog ‘Inside the response to Cyclone Idai]