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Digital volunteers leverage GIS to assist international emergency response efforts

Esri Canada employees help GIS professionals in a variety of ways everyday. However, many of them volunteer their time out of work to support various organizations. This post highlights how one of our employees is using her GIS skills to help with disaster relief efforts.

Shannon Cox (@shanzepp) is a GIS analyst currently in our GIS Associate Program and even with her busy schedule at Esri Canada she finds the time to volunteer her time and GIS skills to help the efforts of Vancouver-based PeaceGeeks. I asked her if she would write a post highlighting how GIS is being used to help with disaster relief efforts. She kindly accepted, so I hope you enjoy the following post and that it will inspire some of you to volunteer your GIS skills to organizations that may need them.

Digital Emergency Response

There's a growing trend of digital volunteerism emerging to react during times of crisis. When disaster strikes, emergency responders and aid organizations on the ground can be left without the information, or even the infrastructure, needed to effectively respond to the disaster. Digital volunteers, however, have the information, technologies and technical skills to assess the status of an emergency remotely.

Digital responders are tasked with the acquisition, verification, summarization and geolocation of data including: the categorization of social media posts and photos to indicate which areas and individuals have been affected; the location of emergency shelters and health facilities to direct those in need; and even the mapping of basic road network infrastructure to assist aid workers in accessing affected areas. GIS technologies such as Esri's Web mapping technologies play an invaluable role in reacting to these emergencies around the world.

Nepal - April 2015

One such emergency occurred on April 25th when a devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Nepal and surrounding areas. Over 7,000 deaths and twice as many injuries have been reported. Immediately following the emergency, dozens of humanitarian organizations volunteered to respond to this disaster, with a strong emphasis on using digital volunteers. These volunteers have been working to acquire and summarize information and photos, and to represent them visually and geographically—in many cases using ArcGIS Online.

Following the earthquake, thousands of photos, news articles, tweets and other social media posts began to flood the Web, providing key markers, stories and data points for assessing the situation in Nepal. This information has led to some heartwarming success stories of locating and rescuing loved ones in the affected communities by geolocating incoming reports from the community.

Using the ArcGIS platform, a GeoForm was created to add photos to a map through a reporting interface. Results are being fed into an ArcGIS Online Web Mapping Application, which includes both links to photos and seismic data layering. From there, information is further verified before being sent overseas to aid organizations.

Esri’s Disaster Response Team was also quick to respond to the event, creating a number of Disaster Response Maps to support organizations in need of data surrounding the earthquake.

Standby Task Force ArcGIS Online Web mapping Application for the 2015 Nepal earthquake.

Other International Crises in Recent Months

Esri's GIS technologies, particularly Web-based tools, have been used in a variety of other natural disasters and humanitarian emergencies in recent years. Two of the most recent digital gatherings emerged in response to Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu in March 2015 and the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in the fall of 2014.

Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu

In March of 2015, a severe tropical cyclone tore through the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, causing serious damage to 22 islands across the archipelago, leaving hundreds of thousands of people homeless and in need of emergency shelter. Particularly due to the inaccessibility of the islands of Vanuatu, remote collection of information was essential.

The main tasks involved in this activation were centered around the acquisition of information including: locations of injured people and infrastructure damage, the status of health care facilities and the status of food and water supplies.

Vancouver’s PeaceGeeks worked alongside URISA’s GISCorps and Humanity Road to create an Early Indications Map on ArcGIS Online based on incoming social media reports. This map provided a quick reference tool for the damage assessment and resource allocation in the days following the cyclone. ArcGIS for Desktop was used to download and manipulate shapefiles of Vanuatu’s administrative areas and publish the results as feature layers to ArcGIS Online.The Web map contains both feature layers from shapefiles and data pushed from a live Google Docs Sheet containing status updates.

Social media information was further categorized and georeferenced using the MicroMappers platform and the results were published by the Standby Task Force to an ArcGIS Online Map Tour. This information proved to be invaluable to emergency workers in Vanuatu by efficiently directing their efforts to the most strongly hit areas and more quickly responding to urgent reports.

Early indication map by URISA's GISCorps and Humanity Road.

Ebola in West Africa

In October 2014, the Digital Humanitarians Network was activated by Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) UK and The British Red Cross (BRC), with the Standby Task Force (SBTF) as the coordinating body, to support information management during the ongoing Ebola crisis. This project was one of the few that focused directly on data management and collecting information to assist the groundwork being carried out by other organizations.

Digital volunteers were tasked with the creation of a health care facility database. Local responders in Guinea, for example, report that three clinics can be verified per day in person, given the restrictions posed by the current transportation networks and limited maps of the area. The SBTF community was tasked with doing everything they can remotely via the Internet. This includes inputting data into the database from a variety of online sources, geolocating the health facilities (identifying on a map where the facility is located), reverse geolocation (we know something is at this location - what is it?), removal of duplicates (many different organizations and sources may have the same facility in their listings) and verification (double-checking that all inputted information is accurate).

The activation was successful in creating the most comprehensive health care facility dataset for the Ebola response in the affected countries. This database became an invaluable resource for numerous organizations—including the World Health Organization—for mobilizing response teams on the ground in the affected countries. Take a look at the visualization of this database on ArcGIS Online with the West African Health Facilities Map.

Connect Locally, Empower Globally

These projects have been made possible by the coordination of a very large network of organizations and volunteers. Requests for assistance in emergencies typically come from international governments or the United Nations and are taken on by members of the Digital Humanitarians Network (DHN), such as the StandBy Task Force, the URISA GISCorps and Vancouver-based PeaceGeeks, among many others.

It is common that these networks of hundreds of volunteers go through several activations without having ever met face-to-face. The PeaceGeeks Emergency Response Team is an exception to this trend, providing opportunities for volunteers to work together locally on global projects. A number of volunteers were brought in via PeaceGeeks to the Vanuatu activation who had local knowledge of the islands. This played a key role in assisting with translation, local names and verification of information. This was the first time a DHN activation was specifically aimed to recruit people with local knowledge, and it was broadly agreed that this provided a significant boost in strengthening the quality of the information provided. The larger the network of both international and local volunteers becomes, the more prepared both organizations and individuals are to respond to future emergencies where local knowledge is critical.

ArcGIS Online has proven to be a critical tool to summarize and communicate critical information during and following emergencies around the world. When Esri technology is combined with the passion of hundreds of volunteers and large volumes of web-based information, relief efforts can be significantly improved and countless lives can be saved.

Note: Due to the nature of these emergencies, many of the maps are dynamic, temporary and private. They are created specifically for aid organizations and emergency workers in the early weeks following an emergency. For this reason, many maps have either been made private or have since been removed.

Shannon Cox

About the Author

Jonathan Nowlan is a Senior Support Consultant for Esri Canada. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Geography from Mount Allison University and a GIS Application Specialist diploma from Fleming College. With over 12 years of experience in GIS, Jonathan has expertise in ArcGIS for Desktop and Extensions, ArcGIS Online and ArcPad. Aside from offering support to Esri Canada clients, he also occasionally instructs Esri Canada training courses and contributes technical articles for the Esri Canada Web site and publications. Jonathan also serves as a mentor to participants of Esri Canada’s GIS Associate Program. Jonathan is fully bilingual in French and English.

Profile Photo of Jonathan Nowlan