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Using maps for effective disaster assistance

A leading mapping organization for humanitarian crisis, MapAction has deployed mapping experts in more than 100 disasters and emergencies, and provided remote support to teams responding to many more events since 2003.

Maps for disaster response
Aerial assessment maps were printed and used over 2,000 times during the response to Cyclone Idai in Mozambique. Picture Courtesy: MapAction

American author Earl Nightengale once famously said that “everything begins with an idea”. During the peak of the Bosnia War in 1994, when an emergency water engineer realized that he and his colleagues did not have maps to plan and coordinate the delivery of aid, the idea of building the same struck him. With the help of his father, he started working on the solution, which took the shape of MapAction a few years later.

A leading mapping organization for humanitarian crisis, MapAction has deployed mapping experts in more than 100 disasters and emergencies, and provided remote support to teams responding to many more since 2003. With a rich experience and deep understanding of all aspects of humanitarian information management, MapAction helps organizations and governments around the world prepare for and respond to disasters.

Maps for disaster response
Reference maps and maps about building damage in the Sulawesi earthquake and tsunami helped aid teams to rapidly understand the impact of the disaster in different locations. Picture Courtesy: MapAction

Reaching out

In the event of a disaster, maps play a crucial role in making sense of the chaos and planning the best response to save lives, minimize suffering and reduce long-term impacts. MapAction works to ensure that disaster response teams have access to the maps and data they need to organize rescue and relief work. Under the charity’s deployment model, its volunteer mapping professionals can be at the scene of a calamity within 24-48 hours. Even before they arrive in-country, they start collecting data and information that will be crucial in helping coordinate the response.

MapAction has a team of over 70 highly skilled and dedicated volunteers, supported by a much smaller group of staff and trustees. In their day jobs, these volunteers work in a range of fields from Antarctic surveying to zoological research. They come to the charity with expertise or experience in mapping, data science and Geographical Information Systems (GIS) for an intensive volunteer training program that equips them with the skills required to create humanitarian maps in disaster zones. “The best thing for me about being a volunteer for MapAction is that we are so many people from different backgrounds, but our common denominator is the GIS. By having so many brains in one place, this truly creates an environment which brings out the best in everyone,” says Katharina Lorenz, GIS Consultant, Mott MacDonald and a MapAction volunteer since 2014.

Maps for disaster response
Central Sulawesi estimated tsunami inundation and modelled liquefaction hazard – the purpose of this map was to help prioritise areas in most urgent need of needs assessments in the aftermath of the disaster. Picture Courtesy: MapAction

Working in collaboration

In the first phase of a humanitarian emergency, the maps created by the charity help identify the areas of greatest need as well as hazards and barriers such as blocked roads or landslide risks that could hamper rescue efforts. As the situation on the ground evolves, MapAction volunteers help national authorities, aid agencies and emergency teams understand and respond to the fast-changing needs of affected communities. MapAction is called upon to help both in the wake of rapid-onset disasters such as tropical storms, earthquakes, floods and landslides, and to assist in long-term, complex emergencies such as epidemics, conflict and population displacement.

So far, MapAction has played a vital role in the coordination of international responses to some of the most serious disasters of recent times, including the Ebola epidemic, Nepal and Indonesian earthquakes, the Iraq war, refugee crises in Europe, Africa, Asia and America and major storms such as Hurricanes Winston, Irma, Maria and Dorian, Cyclone Idai and Typhoon Haiyan. The charity never works in isolation, and holds long-term relationships with key partners, including the United Nations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and regional disaster management agencies. It collaborates closely with its partners to understand exactly what information they need.

“My experiences with MapAction have really transformed my leadership style and the ways that I work with others. After the Haiti earthquake in 2010, there were people trapped under the rubble in a place called the Caribbean Market. In Porto Prince, there are no addresses. People navigate using landmarks. Since the earthquake had levelled the city, all the landmarks had disappeared. So, we literally scrolled through thousands of photographs looking for the White City Bank and the Caribbean Market, and eventually found it. They actually managed to dig a bunch of people out of there. You can’t beat the feeling of seeing some people who are alive because of your work,” says Emerson Tan, CEO, Mautinoa Technologies and a MapAction volunteer for 15 years.

Impact stories

On 28 September 2018, a 7.5 magnitude earthquake struck the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. The quake triggered both a tsunami and soil liquefaction, causing extensive loss of life and displacement of people. At the request of its regional partner, the AHA Centre (the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance), MapAction sent four people to provide support. They worked as part of the Association of Southeast Nations Emergency Response and Assessment Team (ASEAN-ERAT) and alongside a variety of United Nations teams. Within almost a month, the charity helped to ensure that key situational mapping was available so that responders could effectively plan and prioritize relief efforts. The reference maps it created were used extensively and its maps about building damage helped aid teams to rapidly understand the impact of the disaster in different locations.

In March this year, Cyclone Idai made landfall along the south-eastern coast of Africa. With sustained wind speeds of 120mph and heavy rain, it was one of the most intense recorded weather events ever to hit the region. Many affected areas were heavily waterlogged, causing extensive flooding in Mozambique, Malawi, Madagascar and Zimbabwe. As many as 1,300 people were killed by the storm and flooding and 3 million were affected.

The MapAction team worked 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 was most needed.  The aerial assessment maps the team created were printed and used over 2,000 times during the response period. Sebastian Rhodes Stampa, the UN Deputy Humanitarian Coordinator for Mozambique, said at the time,As always, MapAction is really making a difference to the response. The whole system is reliant on your products and I am using them to brief the Minister daily. We value them highly in supporting both strategic and operational planning. You have once again made yourselves indispensable.”

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