MapAction uses location intelligence to serve humanity

Bradley Walker
New York City 40°42'52" N, 74°00'26” W

Disasters happen. How organizations respond in the minutes, in the hours, in the days that follow a disaster can impact thousands of lives. Since 2003, a unique charity called MapAction has rapidly deployed mapping and information teams to create speed and efficiency in rescue and recovery.

It takes a certain kind of person to run toward the fire. When disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes, and other tragedies strike, organizations must mobilize quickly and efficiently to get help to where it’s needed. 

MapAction is a UK based charity committed to quickly deploying response teams to areas in need.  Those highly trained and skilled volunteer teams gather critical information about geography, population, and infrastructure. They then provide that information to aid organizations to optimize rescue efforts.  And, they do this with breathtaking speed.

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We had the opportunity to speak with Liz Hughes, Chief Executive of MapAction; and Peter Beaumont, Board Member of MapAction and Director EMEA Customer & Market Development at HERE.  Here is what they shared with us about using location intelligence to save lives.

Can you tell us about how you came to work for MapAction?

LH: “I think it was the fact that it’s a volunteering organization, and I was very keen in my next job to work with volunteers. I had worked with the Red Cross which is a massive volunteering network … and appreciated the value of what volunteering can achieve. You have that element of commitment and drive and passion that you sometimes have in teams, but you don’t necessarily have it in organizations where volunteering isn’t a part of it.  I think there’s something about the public good that volunteering contributes to that is very very powerful.

“The other motivation was that I really liked the focus of the organization.  It was very niche, it was providing an essential service, and having been on the other side of the maps, working in humanitarian emergencies like Myanmar, where I arrived into the country with no knowledge whatsoever of where anything was, realizing just how important it is to give orientation to help start formulate a plan, to look at things like the logistics – just a really key service, and MapAction doing it very well.

“What I wanted was to work in the sort of organization where we could really move with what was required, and really provide value to the humanitarian community.”

Would you share with us how it works – from the point at which a disaster happens, how do you get involved?

LH: “The primary way we deploy is with the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) team.  That team is activated when a government follows a protocol to request international assistance.  We have an agreement with UNDAC to provide them with mapping services within 48 hours of their request. We normally manage to do that in less than 24 hours if it’s required.

“Because we go in with [UNDAC], that usually opens the doors.  For example, there are visa waivers so that we can deploy immediately … it means we can enter environments where the authorities have requested our presence, so we can have meetings with local authorities to talk to them about the issues and how we’re going to support them.”

Are there other ways you deploy teams?

LH: “Sometimes, we deploy before an immediate request for assistance is made … because we know there’s going to be a need for assistance, and we want to get there before a storm has struck for example. Usually by the time we arrive, a request has been made.

“During the Caribbean storms last year, we sent the first team to Barbados,  to join the UNDAC team and the Caribbean Disaster and Emergency Management Agency (CEMA) … who were undertaking assessments in the British Virgin Islands.  We also sent a team to Turks and Caicos Islands, who were working with the U.N. and the national authorities.”

Assessment

What do the teams do once they’re on the ground?

LH: “The very first thing you have to figure out is how big, and how bad is this emergency?  What’s been its track, what’s been its impact?  Where are the vulnerable populations, who is most vulnerable?  And that’s an important question in a place like the Caribbean which has a whole range of different wealth groups and conditions to look at.

“We quite commonly do something like a storm track map, orientation maps for people coming into the country, transport infrastructure maps to show people what’s left of the infrastructure.  One of the maps they did in the Turks and Caicos Islands was how long it would take people to walk from A to B to get clean water – because water was a problem, and many people could only walk as their means of getting to a water supply because of the damage left by the storm."

PB: “In the case of potable water, you have to look at it ideally as a need for 15 liters per person, per day, that’s the figure for internationally agreed standards in delivering an adequate water supply in an emergency. We can then help water agencies understand where they need to focus to serve the largest population at a time.”

LH: “It really evolves as the emergency unfolds.  The first thing you’re looking at is access assessment, getting a handle on the scale of it, so you can start to make plans around the mobilization of personnel, relief resources, and then the targeting of where those resources will be most effective.

“As time goes on, you’re starting to move into issues around infrastructure, rehabilitation, the recovery of people’s livelihoods, where you’re starting to taper it down to household level assistance sometimes.  There, you need more detailed assessments to support with that.  You may be needing some assistance in targeting those areas, identifying vulnerability.”

What are some of the challenges you face?

PB: “One of the biggest challenges that we face as an organization is making sure that we are making use of the most appropriate technology.

“That doesn’t mean technology at the bleeding edge, because we have to make sure that everything that we’re working with is robust.  When our volunteers in the field are working, they’ve got to have confidence that the technology they’ve got is going to work and is reliable. 

“It’s very easy, when you’re sitting in an office, to have some software that maybe crashes occasionally.  When you’re in the field, you may be sleeping in a tent. It’s a stressful situation because there’s been a humanitarian disaster, which means a lot of injured people, possibly insecurity. There are a lot of unknowns and the last thing you want to worry about is if your technology is going to work.

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“So it’s really important that we keep in touch with the bleeding edge of technology, but at the same time, make sure that what we’re using is fit for purpose and reliable. It’s always that balance, between what we would love to be using because it’s new shiny tech, and what we know will work anywhere in the world.”

LH: “Another challenge is to do with the nature of our work, which is that we are, as I said earlier, a very niche service. So it doesn’t necessarily appeal to the public.  If people have the choice between helping a child, and providing a map, even if the map ultimately benefits that child, it’s more indirect, and people find that quite hard to relate to on an emotional giving basis.

“The other challenge is one of technology, which Peter has talked through. People see us as a technical organization, we would describe ourselves as a humanitarian organization that uses technology to achieve our goal – but our goal is one to improve humanitarian assistance by enabling better decision making, making sure people have the information they need, and a common picture on how to decide where assistance is needed.”

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MapAction continues to thrive in its objective of providing maps and location intelligence to areas in need. It doesn’t receive funds from large public emergency appeals and relies on donations from supporters and corporate partners. To find out more about how you can help, visit MapAction.org.

Topics: Cartography, Community Mapping, Editor's Picks

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