GIS Mapping Technology for Humanitarian Relief

Nestled between the Truong Son mountains and the South China Sea, Quang Ngai Province is like much of Vietnam’s lush and untouched rural landscapes in that it is largely unmapped. Almost 8,000 miles away at the American Red Cross Headquarters in Washington, D.C., thousands of mapping volunteers or “armchair mappers” have been working diligently to change this. By tracing satellite imagery and adding features such as roads, hospitals, and rivers, volunteers are able to help create maps of some of the world’s most vulnerable people and places.

Missing Maps is a project started by the American Red Cross, British Red Cross, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), and Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) as a tool for helping emergency responders, aid groups, and communities better respond to crisis by planning risk reduction and disaster response activities before disaster strikes.

OpenStreetMap is a free, open-sourced mapping platform which uses geographic information systems (GIS) to capture, store, analyze, and visualize various types of data on a single map, thereby making it possible to better understand relationships, trends, and patterns. GIS software systems have been used for more than three decades by humanitarian organizations, researchers, and policy makers to activate quick responses to natural disasters, detect early outbreaks of infectious disease, target development resources, and for the planning of public infrastructure, such as hospitals and clinics.

Natural Disaster Preparedness and Response

On April 25, 2015 a 7.8 magnitude earthquake rippled through Nepal, one of Asia’s poorest and most disaster-prone areas. With an epicenter that stretched 21 miles long, entire villages were decimated and hundreds of thousands left homeless without basic medical care, supplies, food, or water. Within the first hours of the crisis the American Red Cross and thousands of international volunteers were mobilized and began mapping the most devastated areas. By using before-and-after satellite imagery overlaid with population density layers, the districts most affected by the quake could be quickly identified and aid was dispatched to areas in greatest need.

Infectious Disease Detection and Response

Since GIS technology allows various types of data to be simultaneously applied to specific geographic locations, it is also an exceptional tool for tracking diseases, identifying high-risk populations, managing medical supply stocks, determining patient proximity to testing facilities, and the availability of hospital beds. Integrated GIS spatial analyst tools aid in providing early-warning systems with vital information that public health officials need to make effective decisions in preparedness programs at the local, national, and international level.

Improving Access to Care

Direct access to primary health care remains an important issue in low-income countries where large proportions of the population reside in rural areas that lack basic health services. Sophisticated GIS analyst tools can be used to examine existing resources, analyze patterns in health services, and study health inequities in different urban, semi-urban, and rural population groups. These types of analysis are integral to the delivery of essential health services and for the planning of public infrastructure.

By understanding geography and its relationship to people, we can make better-informed decisions about the allocation of limited resources, improving access to care, and disaster preparedness and response.

For more information on how to get involved in GIS-related development projects, visit Missing Maps, The Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT), and GIS Corps.