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Survey aims to show ‘fancy technology on its own will never save lives, it’s how you use it’

22 February 2007 – Older aid workers will recall a time when they forged into disaster zones armed with little more than a map, a compass and a desire to help. These days, there’s a little more to it, and online applications like Google Maps have become the domain of the everyday computer user.

Satellite imagery, global positioning technology, interactive mapping and database software allow aid workers to collect and process vast amounts of spatial information. Humanitarian agencies are increasingly using GIS, harnessing rapidly evolving technologies to track, analyse and respond to natural hazards such as fires, earthquakes, floods and volcanoes.

For starters, there’s AlertNet’s own mapping tool (https://members.alertnet.org/map/index.htm). Beyond that, there’s a whole range of services with technologically clever-sounding names, like AutoDesk Mapguide, ESRI ArcWeb, Intergraph GeoMedia and Manifold.

Aside from their applications in emergency response operations, they are also widely deployed in disaster preparation, where the information they yield is examined to anticipate catastrophes before they occur. But do they do any good?

Despite the ubiquity of these tools, not much work has been done to explore how useful they actually are to the people who use them. There has also been little opportunity for users to offer suggestions of what they would like to see developed.

The Online GIS Survey ), based at the University of Hertfordshire, is aiming to set this straight. Two online questionnaires are posted on the site, one for users of GIS systems, another for providers.

Organisers of the study say the first takes about 20 minutes to complete and the second about 10. The results, they say, will show up where the huge amounts of information generated before, during and after a disaster are not being used to their full potential.

The study’s conclusions will be on AlertNet, so if you use GIS systems or you develop them, get busy with the questionnaire. The closing date is March 10. It might just make your job easier.

And while you’re putting dates in the diary, March 22 is the launch of inTERRAgate, a database of natural hazards for every country in the world. Developed by the London-based Benfield Hazard Research Centre at University College London, it will provide detailed information for each country on past events and future threats. Its aim, the developers say, is to help humanitarian agencies and the broader disaster management community be better prepared for emergencies.

But as the GIS survey hopes to show, fancy technology on its own will never save lives. It’s how you use it.