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Charity puts relief work on the map

UK charity MapAction is a small and innovative player in a sector dominated by huge non-governmental organisations (NGOs). As such, smart use of technology is key to its mission.

The charity uses geographic information systems (GIS), satellite imaging and high-tech communications systems to provide maps for relief workers in disaster zones.

Technologies such as these represent a new dawn for the sector, according to Nigel Woof, operations director at MapAction. “The work we do would be impossible without this technology and it has greatly helped co-ordinate response to many recent natural disasters,” he said.

The charity – ­ funded from donations and by government – has deployed teams to help out with floods in Bolivia, the cyclone in Burma and recent storms in Haiti.

Typically, a volunteer Mapaction team will stay in a disaster zone for two to three weeks compiling information and constructing maps.

The core part of the work is done by GIS technology ­ – provided for free by supplier ESRI.

A GIS uses software to capture, analyse and present location-based information. Traditionally, such tools have been used by utilities to map where underground cables and pipes go, or by insurance firms to look at risk areas.

But it has proved massively helpful in disaster zones, said Woof.

“The first thing that people need to know when co-ordinating their effort is where the incident is, where the un-tended survivors are, and how to get to them,” he said.

The maps are capable of showing various different types of information, sometimes over an area of tens of thousands of square kilometers. They can represent where people are, where water and shelter are, where existing help is, and where the risk of disease outbreaks are highest.

The team will then set up a field office, accumulating and disseminating information.

“You are building a layer cake of different data sets,” said Woof. “Some will be pre-disaster information such as maps, others will be post-disaster situational updates. We analyse the information coming in from workers and feed it back to them in the most useful form possible.”

The key to the technology is being able to collect and collate information from many different types of source material.

In Burma, MapAction found the most useful maps of the area were old British army maps, which were scanned into the GIS and used in conjunction with post-disaster data to create printed maps for workers.

And in the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, the best maps available were Soviet studies of the area from the 1950s, with all the place names written in Cyrillic. After being fed into GIS, these maps were cross-matched with others to provide detailed cartography with readable names.

Although there is a high demand for maps to be printed out and distributed to workers, there is increasing need for maps to be provided in electronic form, said Woof.

“The different versions of the maps we produce are uploaded on to our web site and portal platforms and then syndicated and distributed ­ – we’ll update them at least daily as more information comes in,” he said.

Access to electronic map data in the field would be the next step, said Butler Group analyst Sarah Burnett. “When those in the field have clear and quick access to maps through cheap handheld devices, it could be even more effective,” she said.