Mapping mountains

by Jorge Andres, MapAction volunteer

A few years ago, on a MapAction team training course, participants were asked to present a map that provided particular insight, analysis, or novelty – going beyond simple descriptive mapping.

I chose this map I created of the 2014-5 volcanic eruption on Fogo Island. The steep relief of the island was highly relevant for humanitarian response. Emergency coordinators were monitoring the lava flow as it could reach a critical point where some settlements and roads could be potentially affected afterwards. However, trying to show it with contour lines made the map too messy for a shelter map like this. Satellite imagery and some image processing was used. But, with hindsight, I’m not so sure it was the right option.

I thought quite a lot about this map and the visualisation of the relief. But honestly, this was the best I could do on a static map for showing relief to a broad audience without contour lines.

However, creating this map and then later collaborating with the University of Edinburgh on a volcanic hazard mapping project made me think of a 3D output as a better option for maps where relief is extremely important for understanding the emergency situation.

This fed into my approach to creating the below map of the Crisis del Volcán de Fuego in Guatemala last year.

The volcanic hazard mapping project we are collaborating on with Edinburgh University is growing and we now have funding to expand to six more countries. We are currently working on Chile’s Nevados de Chillán.

Our journey towards equality

By Liz Hughes, MapAction Chief Executive

International Women’s Day is as good a day as any to reflect on gender diversity in the humanitarian and geospatial technology sectors and on what MapAction is doing to ensure equality of opportunity for everyone.

Globally, the proportion of women in the humanitarian sector workforce is high compared to other business sectors, but they are significantly under-represented at leadership level. The gender gap is more pronounced in the tech sector, where LinkedIn data indicates women make up just 27% of the total global workforce, and fewer than one in five female employees reach positions of leadership. That is very worrying when you consider that technology is, in a very real way, shaping the world in which we all live.

Some research suggests that women are better represented in the GIS (geographical information systems) sector than in other technology fields, and, according to our friends at Open Street Map, this is particularly true within the fields of humanitarian and disaster response mapping.

All of this indicates that MapAction, operating as it does at the centre of the Venn diagram of humanitarian emergencies and geospatial information, should be able to achieve gender parity. As an organisation committed to equal opportunities, that is certainly our aim, and one towards which we are steadily progressing, but have yet to attain.

We are fortunate enough to have as distinguished a female geographer as Dr Barbara Bond, Past President of the British Cartographic Society and Fellow and Past Council Member of the Royal Geographical Society, as a Trustee. As well as this, our senior leadership team is evenly balanced by gender. However, currently the overall proportion of women in the organisation is around 30%. Within our volunteer team, where much of our GIS and tech expertise resides, the figure is 26% and currently only a fifth of our ten Trustees are women. We can and will do better.

Why diversity matters

This is important for several reasons. It is certainly desirable that women and other under-represented groups have the opportunity to experience the tremendous personal and professional benefits of being a MapAction volunteer, so they can bring all that learning and personal growth back to help their own organisations and careers. In addition, part of the volunteer experience is belonging to a close community of GIS professionals with whom you work, train, socialise and share some very unique and powerful experiences. As one of our volunteers Kirsty Ferris put it, the “great support, understanding and shared geekiness” is invaluable. According to Kirsty, “There are not many places where you can talk GPS and geodesy with such shared enthusiasm.” To have that kind of peer support network can be vital when 62% of women say they do not see themselves staying in GIS for more than ten years. We need to ensure we have a diverse mix of people, so that all members of our team feel they belong.

But over and above the importance of diversity to our team is its importance for the work we do and the people who’s lives we are seeking to save and improve. The maps we create are a product or our collective know-how and team experience. As Andrew Foerch explains in his article ‘The Importance of Diversity in Cartography’, “Maps are more likely to address problems visible to the people who create them. For example, male and female responses might differ significantly if asked to map safe walking routes through a city.”

Thinking differently can make a difference

GIS and technology expert volunteers make up the lion’s share of MapAction’s membership – we have over 80, plus 10 Trustees, compared to a staff team of 17, most of whom are part-time. We recruit our volunteers once a year, enabling us to train each new intake group together, in order to equip them with all the skills they need to operate effectively within a disaster zone.

Our volunteer recruitment drive is an important annual activity and each new year group brings fresh energy and experience as well as new personalities to our team. The number of men applying to volunteer and making it through our rigorous selection process has nearly always exceeded the number of women. This has always been a concern, but the problem became urgent in 2017 when for the second time in three years, all the successful applicants were male, and only three women were recruited during the three-year period out of a total of 25.

To address the issue, we set up a working group of volunteers and staff members to review our recruitment and also working practices and develop a plan of action. A number of actions came out of that process:

  • We reviewed our GIS volunteer profile to ensure it was attractive to and inclusive of under-represented groups.
  • We published profiles of a diverse group of volunteers and offered to connect prospective applicants with them to find out more about what it’s like to be a MapAction volunteer.
  • We made sure a statement about our commitment to diversity and equal opportunities was included in all our recruitment materials.
  • We broadened the advertising strategy of our recruitment drive, to incorporate organisations such as Women in Technology and Girls Who Code.
  • In order to ensure there are no barriers to entry for any particular group due to unconscious bias on the part of those shortlisting candidates, we are looking at removing all information pertaining to gender, age, ethnicity, disability, etc. from applications.

It is still early days, and there is still much more to do, but it was gratifying to see that our 2018 volunteer intake achieved gender parity at least. We will continuously evaluate and improve our approach. There is tremendous commitment within our staff and volunteer teams to achieve our diversity objectives as part of making MapAction as good as it can be. With that momentum behind us I’m confident that we will get there.

MapAction Volunteer(s) of the Year

On 1 December, MapAction held its Annual General Meeting (AGM) at which we looked back over 2018 and thanked our volunteers and members who have given so much to us over the course of the year in order to further our humanitarian work.

Ant Scott giving a situation report during the response to the Indonesia earthquake in October

Every year we highlight the contribution of one volunteer who has exceeded even our very high expectations in terms of their dedication and impact over the previous twelve months. Winning the Volunteer of the Year prize (also known as the David Spackman Award after our first Chief Executive who presents it each year) is a significant achievement. The bar is very high; all our volunteers are carefully selected for their skills, intelligence, attitude and dedication and being part of our deployable team requires a large, ongoing commitment of time and effort. As well as going on missions and participating in team training, our volunteers also do a lot of less publicly visible work in the UK. They help to ensure that MapAction has the technical capability (tools, knowledge and skills) to maintain and enhance its humanitarian activities. They also create maps remotely and provide remote support to our own teams and our partners around the world to help them process and analyse data and create maps locally.

Mark Gillick (left) receiving the MapAction Volunteer of the Year Award from David Spackman

Two winners

This year, unusually, the David Spackman Award was given to two individuals – Mark Gillick and Ant Scott – both of whom have packed in a huge amount of extremely valuable and important pro bono work during the past twelve months.

Mark deployed a remarkable seven times in 2018 carrying out essential training and preparedness as well as disaster response work. He went from floods in Nigeria directly to the earthquake in Indonesia without returning home in between.

Ant deployed to the Indonesian earthquake, helped represent MapAction at the Humanitarian Openstreetmap Team’s global summit in Tanzania and this month will be conducting a preparedness mission to Kyrgyzstan. He also lead the management and evolution of MapAction’s disaster preparedness offering and spearheaded the transition of our internal wiki to a new platform – a task which took many months of continual focus.

Presenting the awards, David highlighted three qualities that both winners had exhibited in abundance during 2018; intelligence, honourable intent and imagination in the form of creativity and inventiveness. “There is a power relationship between motivation, thought and action, and you both have shown the potency of that synthesis in a noble cause. Could anyone ask for more? Together you are a manifestation of a shining tradition. Thank you both, for your practical hard work and for the self-effacing magic of your inspiration.”

Congratulations to Ant and Mark, and thank you to all our volunteers for the tremendous work you do.

Below is our CEO Liz Hughes’ review of 2018 which she shared at the AGM.

MapAction’s largest training exercise of the year

On 8-10 June 2018, MapAction held its annual disaster simulation training exercise for volunteers. This year’s event recreated the chaotic atmosphere of a complex humanitarian emergency with health, food, water and sanitation insecurity in the fictional, war-torn country of Albia.

The aim of the exercise is to help MapAction’s highly skilled mapping volunteers practice different aspects of their vital work helping get the right aid to the right people in a humanitarian emergency. Over 60 MapAction members took part, along with people from a number of other organisations, including the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA), Milton Keynes NHS Hospital Trust, Buckinghamshire Fire & Rescue Service and Save the Children.

The simulation gives the entire team a chance to rehearse every aspect of a typical mission. A continual stream of planned requests, interruptions and and events means that, as in reality, making maps is only one aspect of an effective mission. The Gilded exercise is the largest and longest of 12 annual training courses that MapAction runs for its members every year, of which deployable volunteers are expected to attend at least seven.

MapAction members share in Royal Wedding celebrations

Seven MapAction members were privileged to participate in the royal wedding celebrations at Windsor Castle last weekend.

Six MapAction volunteers were among 200 representatives of charities with whom the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are closely associated, who were invited to watch proceedings from within the Castle grounds. Stationed in front of the steps to St George’s Chapel, they had a spectacular view of the guests arriving and departing, including the Royal couple’s first kiss as husband and wife.

MapAction’s chief executive Liz Hughes attended the wedding service itself, inside the Chapel, and the guests’ reception afterwards. Typically for Liz, she was attending MapAction training the next day , and shared her experience with the team. “The wedding was both beautiful and very very natural,” she said. “I was most struck by the personal nature of the event, shared so publicly and generously.”

We are delighted and grateful to have had the opportunity for MapAction members to share in this very special occasion, and we wish the royal couple the very best for their future together.