GIS Enables the Humanitarian Response: A Perspective from the United Nations

September 22, 2011

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The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is the part of the United Nations Secretariat responsible for bringing together humanitarian actors to ensure a coherent response to emergencies. It is mandated to play this role in General Assembly Resolution 46/182 passed in 1991. One of the “pillars” of OCHA’s coordination activities is information management. Managing information during a humanitarian emergency is a crucial part of any operation. The humanitarian community recognizes the importance of gathering reliable data on the locations of people in need, what they urgently need and who is best placed to assist them, and the value of this information for effective and timely humanitarian assistance. Geographic information is central to OCHA’s information management activities. The many ways in which spatial data are used in OCHA, from early warning to emergency preparedness to emergency response, are described here, specifically through the work of OCHA’s Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific (ROAP) based in Bangkok.

Early Warning and Planning – Understanding the risks and establishing OCHA’s priorities

OCHA-ROAP creates a number of information products designed to help our partners understand the Asia-Pacific context. The Asia-Pacific region is one of the most disaster-prone in the world, with frequently occurring natural disasters affecting millions of people every year. It tends to be natural disasters and not conflict which cause most of the emergencies to which OCHA must respond. The risk for the various types of natural disasters is not spread uniformly through the region. Different locations are at risk from different types of disasters and at different intensities. Helping people to understand which groups are most at risk forms the basis of much of our early warning and advocacy work. Since the message we are trying to convey is spatial in nature, maps are the most effective way to communicate this information.

At the global and regional level OCHA relies on established international data sources for information on risk for natural disasters. These sources include the Munich Reinsurance company, The United Nations Environment Programme, the Smithsonian Institute, the Pacific Disaster Center and UNISYS. OCHA adds value by displaying these data in conjunction with other operational information or information about particularly vulnerable groups (i.e. refugees or internally displaced persons), in a way that is useful for humanitarian workers and decision makers. OCHA offices at the country level often do similar types of vulnerability mapping but use data more specific to that particular country. This vulnerability mapping often forms the basis for the “worst case” and “most likely” scenarios used in contingency planning.

OCHA couples these spatial data on natural hazard risk with information on current or potential conflicts, data on vulnerabilities, and with information on the capacity of the local governments. This risk model is called the Global Focus Model and identifies hazard-prone countries that combine high vulnerability and low capacity, and which are therefore more likely to request and require support from the international community. This model is a key factor in determining where and at what level OCHA should engage around the world.


Natural hazard risk in Asia-Pacific. (Click for larger view - pdf.)


Historical Monthly Data on Average Precipitation and Tropical Storms. (Click for larger view - pdf.)


Emergency Preparedness – Ensuring that OCHA and its partners are ready to respond

OCHA has been tasked by its humanitarian partners with suggesting “standards that allow for datasets and databases to be compatible in order to support inter-operability of data” in collaboration with sectors/clusters, as well as the “maintenance of common datasets that are used by the majority of sectors/clusters.” (A sector or cluster can be loosely defined as a group of organizations working on a particularly theme, i.e. health, food, shelter, etc.) Experience has shown that establishing these standards and systems only after an emergency has occurred adversely impacts the quality of the response. To address this it is necessary to establish information management as a core component of emergency preparedness and contingency planning, so that on day-one of an emergency, humanitarian responders can take immediate advantage of existing data, initiate common assessments and freely share information.

Based on this rationale, OCHA offices around the world undertake data preparedness. This preparedness includes a wide variety of activities but at its heart it’s about collecting (mainly) spatial data. These spatial data comprise a large part of what are known as the Common Operational Datasets (CODs). They are predictable, core sets of data needed to support operations and decision making for all actors in a humanitarian response. The CODs are proactively identified and maintained prior to an emergency as part of data preparedness measures and made available by OCHA. In ROAP we proactively collect, process, document and update the CODs for those countries deemed to be our priorities through the Global Focus Model. Most of those countries do not have a dedicated OCHA office so we work through our partners in-country to compile the CODs. All the publicly available CODs compiled by OCHA are available on our COD registry.

Those spatial datasets included among the CODs are administrative boundaries, populated places, transportation networks, hydrology and hypsography. Aside from these standard datasets for all countries, different situations may require additional datasets, potentially including refugee camps, mined areas, livelihood zones, etc. In addition to these datasets common to all, there are sector-specific datasets that should be obtained prior to an emergency, such as the location of schools, hospitals, etc. When OCHA is in possession of good quality CODs it enables us to “hit the ground running” and help ensure a more coordinated and coherent response.

Emergency Response: Using geographic data to encourage better decision making

The most recent large-scale disaster in which ROAP responded was the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. A UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) team was deployed and ROAP produced a number of maps and products to support this team and the larger coordination effort.

Japan situation map. (Click for larger view - pdf.)

Maps were produced specifically for inclusion within the daily situation reports which served as the main source of official information, available in English, on the emergency. The maps were basic geographic maps to show the location of key locations mentioned in the report. This was placed on top of earthquake severity information from USGS, or inundated areas from the Dartmouth Flood Observatory, and radii of varying distances from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

An early map took automatically generated coordinates for estimated tsunami arrival times from NOAA’s Pacific Tsunami Warning Center and placed them on a thematic map showing when locations in the greater pacific basin could potentially experience a tsunami. This map was produced about four hours after the earthquake and shared with UN and partner agencies throughout Asia and the Pacific.

In the first hours and days of the emergency there had not yet been a comprehensive assessment to quantify the total number of people affected. To have rough figures from which to plan, OCHA obtained vector data for inundated areas produced by the Dartmouth Flood Observatory based on the first satellite images available. These vectors were overlaid with the 2008 Landscan data from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. An analysis allowed us to estimate the number of people thought to be living in areas affected by the tsunami. While not an accurate account of those affected, it allowed OCHA and its humanitarian partners to estimate the number of people potentially affected in each city and village. It allowed us to prioritize those areas likely to have suffered the most loss of life and damage.

After the first few weeks, more operational maps were produced showing the “who does what where” information that is critical in coordinating a response. By this time, the UN team had left and coordination of international NGOs (non-governmental organizations) was left to a Japanese-based NGO called the Japan Platform. It collected information on which organizations were working in which location and in what sector. That information was passed to ROAP to be displayed on a map for each of the affected prefectures. This information was used to reduce overlap and fill gaps in the humanitarian response.

The Japan disaster and response was not a “classic” humanitarian response due to the massive capacity of the Japanese to manage the situation; however the type of information collected and used and the maps created were fairly typical of those created in all sudden-onset disasters. In cases where an emergency is ongoing, such as in conflict situations (i.e. Somalia, DR Congo) or due to catastrophic disasters (Haiti), the precision of the information and the utility of the maps will increase, becoming ever more sophisticated and relevant to the humanitarian community. Examples of such maps produced by OCHA can be found on OCHA websites around the world and on ReliefWeb, which hosts the largest online repository of humanitarian-themed maps in the world.


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