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How GIS Can Boost Humanitarian Aid



Humanitarian disasters can stem from natural or man-made origins. Regardless of the root cause they lead to mass population displacement, loss of lives and human suffering 1. A humanitarian disaster often poses unique difficulties for non-government and government agencies in the form of infrastructural damages, uncertain supply and demand, geographical challenges, time pressures and risk 1.

 At a basic level a Geographical Information Systems (GIS) analysts can look at geography and topography in a selected area, and in a more detailed way, they can analyze the spatial component of infrastructure like roads, railways, ports and electricity 1. This can guide decision making on things like, where to pre-position points of distribution or selecting optimal delivery routes for supplies 1

Geographical Information Systems play a vital role in assisting humanitarian disaster relief efforts, so much so that the United Nations (UN) and all their supporting agencies have dedicated, specialized GIS teams 1

The UN uses GIS in a variety of situations from peacekeeping missions to providing humanitarian assistance 2. GIS technology is made use of for boundary delimitation and demarcation, field mission planning and operations, humanitarian intervention, logistics, resource allocation, and critical analysis and visualization for situational awareness and security 2. Technology has the ability to help us work smarter not harder, and GIS value adds in times of great need.


Challenges faced by humanitarian organizations

Up-to-date high-resolution population distribution datasets are important for planning humanitarian operations, and globally, we’re seeing a growing demand for satellite-derived information for human rights and humanitarian organizations 3. Information collected first-hand poses a range of difficulties and inaccuracies, but using GIS has its own set of complications. Most organizations face the same challenges, a general lack of trained GIS personnel, issues surrounding the availability, accuracy and timeliness of data, lack of high-resolution imagery and demographic data not available at the refugee camp level 4. Nevertheless, aid agencies are pushing ahead with using GIS to the best of their abilities.


Cross-jurisdiction data sharing

Delivering humanitarian assistance in the complex emergencies and spontaneous nature of these situations requires agility in order to plan and deliver missions in all types of environments 5. Humanitarian organizations around the world use GIS to plan missions, mobilize and implement field teams quickly, and monitor and evaluate their effectiveness, in real time 5. As such, sharing of data can only improve the outcomes for humanitarian organizations. 

World leaders and major corporations understand the importance of sharing data and there is a wealth of open-source data available for use. There’s an agreement between space agencies over satellite imagery and data collection for the purposes of crisis support. They have outlined the aims of this agreement to provide; the supply of critical data during periods of crisis for the management and anticipation of crises, and to support emergency assistance, reconstruction, as well as subsequent operations 3.


Drone capabilities add value

Drones, also defined as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) offer a vast range of benefits to humanitarian missions. Utilizing drones in a humanitarian context can optimize operational, economic and social benefits to organizations and people in need 6

Drones are often used to record visual data for mapping purposes, and can be deployed rapidly into areas that are difficult to access. They can quickly identify disrupted roads and debris blocking key infrastructure so that organizations can better manage their response to an adverse event 6. In areas where conflict persists, using drones keeps operators out of harms way. Collecting spatial data with the use of drones is also much more cost-effective than other remote sensing options 6. Overall, the use of drones is encouraged due to their ability to increase the speed and flexibility of mapping and overcoming logistical barriers whilst enhancing cost-efficiency and precision 6.


Planning and risk assessment for aid missions

Typically, most humanitarian aid missions take place in a spontaneous form and can’t be planned for, however in the case of humanitarian crises borne out of natural disaster. These can be planned for.

 In the Asia-Pacific region, where natural disasters are most frequently occurring, the risks themselves are not evenly distributed throughout the region 7. Some areas will experience different natural phenomenon’s and at differing intensities, therefore communicating this risk and developing early warning systems are crucial 7. Taking into account all the available geospatial information, vulnerability mapping can be created and these often form the basis for contingency and evacuation planning 7.

Although forward planning is used more in the context of natural disasters it is possible to apply a similar technique to conflict zones, by using GIS to plan the locations of optimal evacuation centers or refugee camps 8.  When conflict is occurring or likely to commence aid agencies can assess the geography, potential movement corridors and vulnerability of the population to select the most suitable refugee camp locations. Thus, providing the fastest and best possible assistance to those people in need. 


Allocation of camp resources and infrastructure

Refugee camps are fluid and often changing. One key way GIS can assist humanitarian efforts is by analyzing refugee camp design, which will lead to better management, resource distribution and infrastructure development. Mapping the camp means that support organizations can better understand where important buildings and infrastructure are, such as schools, medical centers and paths and this helps to inform decisions that directly impact people living there. 

Not only can GIS establish the exact areas in the camp that people are living, but also record their vulnerability, area of origin and other important demographic information 4. It’s possible to analyze refugee camp growth trends and dynamics, using satellite imagery. This enables camp management to better place infrastructure and resupply points, in relation to forecasted growth of the camp population.

In 2018 it was estimated that there were over 2.5 million internally displaced people in Afghanistan alone 9. Adequately providing for camps of displaced people (IDP) requires a good understanding of the dynamics and total population of the camp. The Norwegian Refugee Council has been working with IDP in Western Afghanistan and needed to understand the dynamics of the populations in the camps around Qala’e’Naw 9

They supplied tents as temporary shelters, but it was often uncertain exactly how many tents were at each site and how many people were inhabiting each tent. Manual counting was labor intensive and would have to be repeated as people moved around, however the tents were clearly visible against the landscape in satellite imagery. A method for counting the tents was established using a process of image segmentation and classification using satellite imagery and machine learning 9. From this work, each tent was able to be classified and converted into a georeferenced polygon, showing a total of 6538 tents in the main area of Qala’e’Naw 9. Considering an average of 4.7 people per household, per tent, that would indicate over 30,000 IDPs in this area alone 9. This kind of analysis is essential to adequately supporting and managing these camps. 


Logistical challenges can be overcome

Maps are a core element to any logistical challenge, when trying to transport medical equipment, essential supplies or people from place to place. A factor that often complicates humanitarian logistics is the large number of stakeholders and separate organizations involved 10. In other situations of conflict there may be no ‘official’ government led sources of information, geospatial data becomes the only option and ensures the continuity of supply provision 11

In many developing nations important infrastructure and environmental features are either not mapped at all or not mapped accurately 12. In the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2018 an Ebola outbreak threatened to rapidly take hold, it was essential that medical resources be quickly dispatched to the areas in need 12. In order to boost their logistics capabilities GIS officers made use of the open source, collaborative mapping platform OpenStreetMap 12. They were able to allocate tasks for individuals to map key infrastructure and features that were absent from existing maps, so that humanitarian aid and medical staff could be transported swiftly 12

In Afghanistan authorities were able to identify the best transportation routes for humanitarian aid and potential bottlenecks before they occurred 10. Providing accurate quantities and types of aid are important, but getting it to the right places is equally as important. 


How the Lebanese Red Cross use GIS

The Lebanese Red Cross have shown the agility of GIS for various humanitarian purposes. Since the civil war within their own borders, the Lebanese Red Cross were already familiar with using GIS from past projects mapping minefields and unexploded ordinance 13. When Lebanon began fighting against Islamic State militants along the border with Syria in 2017 the Lebanese Red Cross were quick to plan their response 13. They used GIS to plan their medical evacuation points for efficiency and safety in mind 13. In conjunction they monitored the progress of each ambulance by GPS transmitters so they could improve on any evacuation routes that encountered difficulties 13

In another innovative initiative they have begun to register the location of willing blood donors throughout the capital, Beirut 13. When they run low on a particular blood type, they can more efficiently target blood drives in a particular area that has the most people registered with that blood type. 

While they’ve deployed their skills in conflict-based humanitarian aid they have also set out to boost the countries disaster preparedness 13. The country is at risk of landslides and earthquakes due to its’ geographic location, so the team have carried out hazard vulnerability and capacity assessments to enable disaster preparedness resources to be best placed in the event of a natural disaster 13. This displays the scope of which GIS can be used to boost humanitarian aid during times of crisis, whether that be from natural disaster or conflict.



About the Author
I'm Daniel O'Donohue, the voice and creator behind The MapScaping Podcast ( A podcast for the geospatial community ). With a professional background as a geospatial specialist, I've spent years harnessing the power of spatial to unravel the complexities of our world, one layer at a time.