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Mapping the data: How one UK charity helped the aftermath of Nepal's earthquake

Margi Murphy | June 11, 2015
Deploying relief workers and aid following a natural disaster needs to be strategic to avoid wastage, prevent conflicts and contain disease; that's why charity MapAction use GIS and data to provide charities and governments with predictive analysis tools.

UK charity MapAction depends on graphical information systems (GIS) to help make sure relief workers and aid is deployed effectively following a natural disaster like Nepal's earthquake.

It uses Esri's ArcGIS software to approach disasters strategically, supplying other volunteers with the tools they need to deploy aid, shelter and workers in an efficient manner.

For example, when a 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit Nepal's capital Kathmandu last month, MapAction's location intelligence specialist Matt Pennells jumped on a plane armed with a laptop, printer and hard drive. After setting up a tent, Pennells pooled the available data sources often in the form of "a scrap of paper" to create maps that will assist the UN and international charities as they arrive to take over relief efforts.

This includes mapping helicopter landing points, areas where more women are affected - and therefore different aid like sanitary towels are a priority - or where a particular ethnicity or religion may have different needs.

Crucially, mapping data to a minute level assists with any overlapping or waste of aid.

Pennells said: "Aid in the wrong place isn't aid at all. If we [MapAction] weren't there it would be luck more than judgement. You might get perfect distribution of aid, but it's unlikely."

In Nepal specifically, landslides have caused the ground to shift and monsoons have caused saturation in the soil, furthering a vicious circle. MapAction used predictive analysis to help decision makers set up camps based on geographic data as well as government's epidemic and death data . This way charities can avoid relocating refugee camps in potentially deadly areas where disease is rife.

"You don't want to set up a camp in an area typically full of cholera, for example. We're not just using data for decision making but predictive analysis," Pennells adds.

One map the charity was able to create "in hours" using Esri's software, which is supplied to them free of charge, shows the details of every small village in the affected areas surrounding Katmandhu, complete with their area codes. Relief workers are deployed to each of the different villages the size of London postcodes. While it seems a simple task to offer aid to a delegated village, the boundaries are often unclear and names of each ward are often duplicated, causing aid to be sent to the wrong place, or the same place twice.

For example, "there are about one hundred villages called landslide because there are so many in Nepal", long-standing volunteer Vickie White explained.

When relief workers return from delivering tents or food, it is checked off and updated on MapAction's database. By defining the areas and the codes, and adding gender distribution, ethnicity and population information to maps, MapAction helps volunteers deliver the right resources to the right places.


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