Direct Relief Scales GIS to Serve Those in Need Around the World

November 13, 2013

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Esri presented its President’s Award to Direct Relief at the user conference in July. The non-profit, non-partisan organization, founded in 1948, provides medical assistance to people around the world who have been affected by poverty, natural disasters and civil unrest. GIS is among the tools it uses to further its mission. Directions Magazine interviewed Direct Relief’s director of research and analysis, Andrew Schroeder, about the use of geospatial technology in disaster relief. He had just returned from the GIS for the United Nations Conference where he joined Esri president, Jack Dangermond, and representatives from the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank on a panel.
Direct Relief’s Global Aid Map shows where the organization is currently active
Directions Magazine (DM): Direct Relief hosts an Aid Map showing where its energies/donations are helping those impacted by natural or man-made disasters. How has this map helped the organization? How is its impact measured?
Andrew Schroeder (AS): The main purpose of Direct Relief‘s Aid Map is to communicate openly and specifically with our key stakeholders, particularly our individual, foundation and corporate donors.  So we’re tracking every shipment [of medical supplies and equipment] to every partner around the world in precise detail, refreshing that data continuously, and linking it to a range of other data sources which help to put our work in context. The main benefit of this so far has been to establish a high standard of transparency in our external communications; we want our donors to ask a lot of us in terms of what they can know about the support we’re providing around the world. 
The impact can, in that sense, be measured in terms not only of how frequently people are engaging with it on our website but in terms of the kinds of requests we now get for information.  We’ve started moving from just routine requests for location and dollar value of assistance to much richer conversations about the communities we’re trying to help, the conditions we’re trying to impact and the events to which we’re responding. The conversations have just become much richer when we can take high levels of transparency for granted as a routine aspect of our work. 
DM: The map gallery also shows responses to various regional disasters. How does Direct Relief use GIS internally, both in managing responses and in fundraising? 
AS: I’d say we’re much further along in the use of GIS for programs than for fundraising. On the programmatic side we’re using GIS as a data integration and visualization tool which feeds right into strategic planning. We’re looking at where our clinical partners are located in relation to population, diseases, events and risks like climate and conflict. We’ve also moved pretty rapidly over the past couple of months into using tools like ArcGIS Online as an internal collaboration environment, putting spatial tools and data directly in the hands of our program staff so they can ask their own questions, make some of their own maps and engage in a higher level analytic and strategic dialogue about what we’re trying to accomplish. On the fundraising side we’ve started employing tools like Esri Community Analyst to put our donor base in context and to look for spatial patterns that might lead us to find more donors.  But that work is definitely at an earlier stage than our programmatic work
Screenshot from the Global Fistula Map based on 2011 data submitted by health facilities that provide obstetric fistula repair
DM: Information sharing is key to addressing global issues such as medical needs. How does Direct Relief use data from other providers and share data back out? Are there guiding principles for data sharing?
AS: We use open data quite extensively.  For instance, like many others, we depend on sources from U.S. federal government agencies like the Census Bureau, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to help us with strategic planning and emergency response. We use data from the United Nations (UN) for much the same purpose internationally.  As projects like InterAction’s Non-governmental Agency (NGO) Aid Map have come online this has also helped us understand the landscape of other actors in the same space we’re trying to affect. And likewise, we’re trying to do our best to feed back into those collaborative projects, and to make data like the surveys which drive our global fistula map downloadable. We’re big believers in the idea that data is most effective when it can be integrated in creative and original ways, so we’d like other agencies and organizations to use the data we can put out there to solve problems that we may not have thought of. That sort of collaboration makes all of us better off. 
DM: What makes tackling global issues with GIS different from tackling regional ones? What specific complexities come into play as organizations scale up?
AS: I’m not sure it’s that different actually.  I mean, there’s more data if you’re looking across the entire planet, for sure, but regional issues are composed of the same structures and constraints. We’re looking at the problems from the same sort of frameworks. Let me give you a quick example. One of the projects I’ve been involved with over the past couple of years involves helping a researcher to analyze the spatial distribution of Burkitts Lymphoma cancer cases among children in western Kenya, and how those cases may be correlated with patterns of variation in malaria prevalence. This is a problem which is defined very specifically and locally around a single region in one country, but which because of the kind of data and analytics involved can be just as complex as one which looks across a much broader scale. The key is how one constructs, tests and communicates relationships. GIS pushes you to think at many scales simultaneously and to focus the bulk of the work on analytic methods to understand spatial relationships – the actual geographic scale itself doesn’t matter so much except insofar as the questions you’re asking ought to be appropriate to the scale of the analysis.  
DM: What are the biggest challenges from a GIS standpoint that Direct Relief currently faces? What are the plans for addressing them?
AS: Our biggest challenges involve making sure that we’re not overcommitting ourselves to new projects and that we’re able to resource GIS and spatial analytic projects effectively. Honestly, we now get more requests for GIS work than we can possibly fulfill. The numbers of problems and issues that we can help to address either by ourselves or in collaboration with others is bottomless. The more work we do, the more our partners find value in that work, and the more demand there is for that work. If I wanted to, I could do nothing but externally facing GIS work in consultation and collaboration with our partners. Prioritization becomes a problem at that point because there are just so many problems I want to participate in helping to solve. So in response, we’re having to discuss prioritization much more strategically than we maybe had to in the past. We’re having to be more selective about the kinds of projects we can take on and what the expected outcomes of those projects should be. But that’s a really good problem to have, so I can’t complain.  

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