Using geographic information systems in humanitarian response

Laura Eldon General, Humanitarian, ICT4D

Laura Eldon reflects on the potential of geographic information systems to help humanitarians, and introduces case studies from South Sudan and Tanzania.

When a conflict or disaster strikes Oxfam responds rapidly to protect and save lives. To do this effectively we need to understand where the greatest needs are, plan and monitor our response activities, and coordinate with other actors on the ground. In settings where multiple agencies are present, and situations are changeable, it is extremely important to have access to accurate, easily visualised information. This is where new ways of collecting and visualising data related to geographic locations, ‘Geographic Information Systems (GIS),’ can help us to make better informed decisions.

In settings where multiple agencies are present, and situations are changeable, it is extremely important to have access to accurate, easily visualised information
The use of Geographic Information Systems can take different forms. In South Sudan, we’ve been using simple maps to illustrate the location of water and sanitation facilities in conflict-hit Wau. This has enabled Oxfam and our partners to better monitor and coordinate activities to maintain existing facilities and identify where facilities are most needed.

In Tanzania, we’ve recently conducted a pilot project to introduce a combination of mobile data collection tools and GIS to better monitor the status of latrines and water points used by Burundian refugees. This has generated timely and accurate data (see sample map below) to support programme activities as well as valuable learning to help inform future work.

We’re also excited about the potential for GIS to support improved technical analysis of geological and hydrogeological conditions – improving the process of locating new boreholes and maximising the chances of developing successful and sustainable water sources.

Whilst introducing GIS is by no means new for the humanitarian sector, the Tanzania and South Sudan case studies document our experiences and prove clear, tangible, evidence of added value to internal stakeholders. For our frontline humanitarian staff GIS is already seen as a valuable tool.  With other current activities ranging from topographical mapping to help inform the design of water networks in camp settings in Ethiopia, to market mapping in Indonesia and Zimbabwe, it is clear that potential uses of GIS go far beyond the water and sanitation (WASH) case studies highlighted above.

As we seek to better understand wide ranging field needs in order to streamline our engagement with GIS tools, we’ve found that the term ‘GIS’ can mean many different things to different people. Consultations with technical teams highlighted no less than seven clear use cases for such tools in Oxfam projects:

  1. Detailed topographical mapping for WASH programme design (eg design of water network systems, drainage design and hydrogeological maps) and monitoring.
  2. Ongoing / real-time monitoring of static facilities eg waterpoints / latrines / boreholes
  3. Active case monitoring during a health epidemic eg Ebola outbreak
  4. Early warning activities eg mapping of market systems / WASH facilities and coverage etc
  5. Preparedness work with communities eg participatory vulnerability and capacity analysis
  6. Monitoring geographic and geologic features to develop farming techniques and increase food production through the analysis of soil data and historical farming practices
  7. Visualisation of the situation and Oxfam projects/ areas of intervention and monitoring activities (eg interview locations) for coordination and better knowledge management.

 As we work to understand how to scale and support such activities, we have been reviewing different support models and tools in which to invest, all underpinned by a guiding focus on  Responsible Data.  We have benefited hugely from conversations with a number of peer agencies advanced in the GIS space who have been very generous with their time and to whom we are hugely grateful. We would very much welcome contact from others working in this area and would be happy to share learning about our journey so far with anyone who would like to get in touch.

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Susan Grace Duku