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Nigel Woof answers questions on MapAction

Nigel Woof This MapAction interview (PDF) is also available to download.

1. Why was MapAction established and what is the main focus for its work?

MapAction was set up to improve the efficiency of disaster relief operations by gathering relevant information at the disaster scene and distributing it to aid workers in the form of maps.

We first did this in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004. Now, although we remain an independent NGO, we work closely with the United Nations and other partners in coordinating international response in the field. We can claim that we’ve become experts in using geographical methods to get help to people who most need it in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. However we are just one of several organisations that use geographical information systems (GIS) at various stages of the disaster risk cycle (risk analysispreparednessresponserecovery and reconstruction).

2. Why are up-to-date maps so important in disaster situations? And what benefits do they bring to governments and NGOs working in these situations?

After a large disaster many organisations will be involved in response including search and rescue teams, civil protection bodies, UN agencies, Red Cross/Red Crescent, and relief NGOs. Some of the international teams may never have worked in the affected country before. The situation on the ground will be confused and the physical landscape may have been altered by the disaster (for example, floods, landslides). Most of the crucial information has a where? component: Which areas are most affected? Where are people moving to? Which routes are open to bring relief aid?

Maps are a vital tool to create a shared picture of the emergency. This is particularly important because no single agency may be ‘in charge’ in an international operation, each NGO wants to be able to see the whole situation to see where its help is best directed, and to avoid gaps and overlaps in the concerted response. So, one of the most important types of map ‘product’ in an emergency is Who is doing what, where (known as 3W). Obviously such maps need to be updated frequently – probably every day.

3. Why are many developing countries not able to produce the mapping that is needed in post disaster situations?

Actually some developing countries have made good progress in acquiring the resources to use mapping after disasters; and, even more importantly, to plan for and mitigate natural hazard events (disaster risk reduction, or DRR). However, GIS requires sophisticated IT resources and quite a lot of training to be used effectively. One particular problem in developing countries is ‘skills drain’ – expensively trained GIS staff are often enticed away into the commercial sector, sometimes in a different country, where they can maximize their earning power. Still, the cost of acquiring GIS technology is falling, with the evolution of open-source software and MapAction has helped partner organisations in developing countries to select and apply appropriate technology GIS solutions.

4. How do the MapAction team go about sourcing and creating the maps that are needed and what technology do they use? What type of information are they typically producing for the maps?

We need some base map data as a starting point, then the situation information to overlay, to produce an operational map. Most maps then involve making a layer cake of physical and human geography data sets.

Remote sensed (satellite or air photo) images are often used for background mapping and analysis of satellite images can usefully show extents of flooding for example if the images can be acquired quickly and got to our team in the field. But information about people cannot usually be obtained from space, so we have to get involved in gathering data on the ground, by taking part in field assessments to determine for example numbers of vulnerable people in temporary camps. Some of the most essential data for disaster mapping seems quite mundane: for example the district boundaries within the affected country; without this we can’t map the statistics of people in need as the emergency progresses.

5. Can we not just use Google Earth to do this sort of thing?

Google Earth is a fantastic tool of itself and also as a gateway to the sharing of geographic data generally. MapAction now provides, alongside its published maps, situation data about a disaster as KML files that can be viewed in Google Earth and combined with users’ own data. Professional GIS software allows data to be combined and presented in a wider range of ways and so MapAction uses those tools in our own map production. But the most important thing is the data, and a varied software toolkit is needed to create, edit and combine the various data sets needed in humanitarian work. Once the data is in useful shape it can be used in various ways including in conventional maps (look at the maps section of reliefweb), in Google Earth and in web mapping portals (see for example ushahidi.com).

6. Which disasters have MapAction teams been recently involved in and what has been the result of their work?

We now assist in many humanitarian crises each year. In 2009 MapAction sent teams to eight emergencies ranging from floods in west Africa to an earthquake in Indonesia and to help to get aid to displaced people during the conflict in northern Pakistan (this type of crisis is known as a Complex Humanitarian Emergency or CHE). Actually the most frequent type of natural disasters, affecting the largest numbers of people overall, are weather-related events including heavy rain or coastal flooding, often associated with tropical storms (hurricanes, typhoons and cyclones). But this year we have been heavily involved in the Haiti earthquake disaster which has been extremely demanding for all involved. In Haiti our team assisted in coordinating the work of search and rescue teams across the devastated city of Port-au-Prince, deducing GPS coordinates of trapped victims based often on incomplete text messages from their phones. Later, we helped to set up a Humanitarian Information Centre (HIC) which has become a coordination focal point for the literally hundreds of aid organisations who have arrived in the country to assist more than one million people who were made homeless and who are now highly vulnerable to seasonal rains and storms.

7. What sort of skills and experiences would I need if I wanted a career in this sector?

As a preparation to work in GIS (in any sector) you can take a degree in the discipline straight off, or do a postgraduate qualification in GIS after a more general first degree in say geography or computer science.

People get into humanitarian work through various routes but getting some experience working and living in a developing country is an important first step. Unlike some professions there is no clear step-by-step career path but there is a good Finding a Job page and other advice on aidworkers.net

8. How can I support MapAction’s work?

While you are at school or college, organising fundraising for an NGO (like MapAction!) can be very worthwhile. Being able to show, in that way, commitment to supporting international aid work can be help you later on too, if you decide to seek a career in humanitarian or international development work.

Nigel was interviewed in May 2010.

Nigel Woof’s Biography

Nigel Woof joined MapAction in 2003, initially as a volunteer, and is now the charity’s Chief Executive. He has been on disaster response missions in Africa, Asia and the Americas, including earthquakes and tsunami, tropical storms and floods. He has degrees in environmental sciences and management and is a Fellow of the RGS-IBG.

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