How GISCorps is assisting communities with ‘remote help’

How GISCorps is assisting communities with ‘remote help’

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Shoreh Elhami and Wendy Nelson
Shoreh Elhami (on left), Founder, GISCorps, and Wendy Nelson (on right), Executive Director, URISA.

“URISA’s GISCorps is a well-run machine. There is a Core Committee within GISCorps that evaluates incoming project requests; determines suitability to the organization’s mission; develops job descriptions; queries the volunteer database for needed skills, and recruits individuals for projects”, says Shoreh Elhami and Wendy Nelson in an interview. 

How can ArcGIS Online enable a volunteer, sitting here in Chicago, to help save people from life-threatening floods 942 miles away in Houston, Texas?

URISA’s GISCorps volunteers are all over the world and want to contribute their GIS expertise in some way. Data is data… and making easy-to-understand visuals from that data for decision-makers and public safety professionals to use to better allocate resources and respond to threats is what those volunteers are able to do (without getting in the way or using limited onsite resources).

How much can GISCorps accomplish by “remote help” assistance?

A lot. Most of GISCorps’, more than 200 projects, have been completed remotely. An organization is either overwhelmed with an emergency situation, like Hurricane Harvey, and are using all of their resources on the ground, so they turn to URISA’s GISCorps to provide the tools they need.

The other situation is when an organization has no GIS expertise on staff and no ability to fund a position, so they turn to URISA’s GISCorps to fill a specific need. An example of this type of project is a volunteer using imagery for a change detection project for national lands in Mozambique.

How is it organized?

It’s a well-run machine. There is a Core Committee within GISCorps that evaluates incoming project requests; determines suitability to the organization’s mission; develops job descriptions; queries the volunteer database for needed skills, and recruits individuals for projects. Oftentimes, depending on the breadth of the project, a manager is assigned who follows up with the agencies requesting assistance and oversees the project.

What’s the biggest challenge involved in “remote help” emergency response?

Communication can be challenging at times especially when volunteers come from around the globe. Another challenge relates to connectivity as many countries do not have fast Internet connection. Lastly, I’d say covering shifts 24/7 are sometimes difficult, though, almost always volunteers help one another.

Who is giving orders, i.e. who directs what priorities are since there’s so much need?

We run our communication on Slack for larger crowd sourcing projects. We create several channels for various groups and purposes. The Core Committee which is the decision making body of GISCorps, has a separate channel and that’s where we decide on protocols, building documents, and workflows. The conversation on Slack is nonstop especially for larger deployment. A good example of that was a recent project, where we assisted WHO’s Global Polio Eradication initiative; over 12,000 messages were generated over the course of 5 weeks.

How are the monetary needs taken care of?

URISA’s GISCorps accomplishes its goals through the selflessness of volunteers and the Core Committee members (100% volunteer based). We do accept monetary donations to support administrative functions, which we hope will evolve into paid staff at some point. We’ve already seen how this program has had positive impacts around the world. The potential of this program to have an even greater impact, with staff support, is enormous.