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Geospatial Support for the UN World Food Programme

Geospatial Technology Is No Longer A Luxury – It Is A Necessity!

In this episode, the discussion is about the role of geospatial at the UN World Food Programme (WFP). The combination of remote sensing, the use of drones, and GIS offer the best solutions that the WFP turns to for evidence-based information about a disaster, which helps response teams in their operations. Geospatial helps to answer the questions such as: which areas face a risk of food insecurity, who are the affected population, and how WFP and its partners can quickly reach them.

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About The Guest

Rohini Swaminathan is the head of the geospatial Support Unit at the UN World Food Programme. She holds a bachelor’s in Geoinformatics and a master’s in Geomatics with a focus in Remote Sensing. Her work experience spans a lot of different applications ranging from environmental science and biological applications to disaster management. Currently, her focus is more on sudden onset disasters that happen at a large scale such as floods, earthquakes, and tropical storms, among others.

The focus is not only to respond after the disasters happen but also to prepare adequately for the disasters before they actually happen.

Disaster Preparedness – Advanced Disaster Analysis and Mapping (ADAM)

Today, WFP focuses more on disaster preparedness as much as post-disaster emergency response. With the ADAM system that issues early warning alerts for any country that may be hit by a certain disaster, WFP receives beforehand information on the extent to which a certain disaster would be hazardous.

ADAM provides a holistic picture of what the potential impact of a disaster looks like, how many people would be exposed, and where they would potentially be displaced to. With this information, the welfare program, other UN agencies, and NGOs can plan on how to provide the much-needed response as quickly as possible.

Where Does WFP Get Mapping Data?

To be able to serve the areas where the welfare program operates, WFP needs up-to-date mapping data for those areas. Although the entire world is not fully mapped, there are many mapping programs that are making efforts to map the world. Even so, the data is not all gathered and coordinated in one single database that can easily be accessed. The WFP does not usually collect data itself but relies on partners (different mapping programs) to provide the data. WFP then gathers the data, cleans it, and stores it in a way that is quickly accessed during response operations.

The UN WFP Hunger Map

The WFP hunger map shows what the food insecurity of a population looks like at any given day. A dedicated unit for vulnerability analysis and mapping conducts surveys within a population to determine its exposure to food shortage. Gathering information through multiple different ways including mobile phones and online data collection tools, internally developed machine learning.

Geospatial Technology Is Not A Luxury – It Is A Necessity!

Evidence-based information is required to be able to efficiently reach people in need. This makes geospatial a critical part of disaster preparedness and response efforts. With this awareness, geospatial technology is no longer thought of as a luxury thing that could possibly add value. Today, as soon as a disaster such as a flood occurs, the first immediate request is to get geospatial-based evidence information that could be used. Geospatial technology is a necessity that needs more integration and institutionalization.

Acknowledging Limitations in Geospatial Technology

There is only so much that geospatial technology can do. The technology has limitations. But oftentimes, people tend to overestimate the capabilities of this technology. Rohini sums this up in the following words:

“Sometimes, it is possible that people’s expectation on what the technology could do is more than what it can actually do.”

 A good example is drones – whose potential is often overestimated. In a massive disaster, a drone would be limited in how much area it can cover and how fast the area covered can be processed. Turning to satellites, the imagery coverage might not always capture the whole extent of what a disaster looks like. There is still a need to research how various satellite data that overlap by time and space can be combined in a way that gives a holistic representation of how things are.

Optical imagery is often misunderstood as well. Right after a flood, there would be a lot of cloud cover which will make it impossible to use optical imagery for data collection. In such a scenario, radar data may offer an alternative, but it also comes with its own challenges. Trying to translate these technical difficulties is not something most people would be able to grasp. Not so many people are aware of the difference between optical and radar imagery.

Overlooking these limitations is what often leads to other people overestimating what can be achieved with existing geospatial technology. Geospatial professionals should be as realistic as possible in the way they translate the highly technical products and the limitations they have into something useful, usable and understandable by people with no technical background at all.

Skills You Need For a Successful Geospatial Career in the Humanitarian Space

When seeking to work in the humanitarian space one of the things to do is to demonstrate your passion for that kind of work. There are different ways to do this, either through working in NGOs, volunteering, or getting hands-on and doing some work on your own i.e. taking some datasets and trying to understand how it can be useful in a certain context.

Humanitarian agencies such as the UN WFP have a goal of making a product that could be as wholesome as possible in its usefulness at the last mile response operations. One of the main skills to have is an improved understanding of the application of the technology. In addition to an understanding of the technology side of GIS and the data, an understanding of the context of how the technology can be used is also critical for a successful career in the humanitarian space.

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.