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Mapping humanitarian action – a fast-developing sector

05-04-2012 Interview

To improve its response to people's needs in its humanitarian operations, the ICRC is increasingly turning to geographic information systems (GIS). René Saameli, the ICRC's GIS coordinator, explains how the organization uses these maps.

What advantages do GIS offer us for humanitarian action?

GIS are marvellous tools for more effective decision-making and action. For example, when you're planning to distribute food or other supplies in remote areas, it's vital to know where the beneficiaries are, how to reach them and what infrastructure they already have. Obtaining a map that provided this information used to be quite difficult, or simply impossible because the map didn't exist. Today, basic maps are much more readily available. And a lot of progress has been made with GIS methods that enable us to map and share this information. In fact, they have completely revolutionized the way we work.

Can you give us an example?

The ICRC often works in poorly mapped areas. For example, we have a project to repair and expand the water-supply system in Walikale, a town in North Kivu province in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. But before we embarked on the project, we needed to know how the population was spread over the territory and where to lay the pipes, dig the reservoirs and deliver the water. We needed a detailed map. So we bought a satellite image of the town and asked the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap community of volunteers (openstreetmap.org), people who live all over the world, to digitize the location of buildings and roads in order to draw up an accurate map.

So it's a real crowdsourcing project – using information gathered by Internet users?

Yes, everyone was able to contribute to creating the digital map, thereby helping the ICRC to prepare its project. In effect we called upon "e-volunteers" who complemented the work of our staff on the ground. Thanks to this collaboration, we will not only be able to restore the water supply, but also provide the Walikale authorities with an up-to-date map of the area.

How long has the ICRC been using this technology?

We have been using GIS for around 15 years. When it comes to delivering water to people facing a shortage, for example, we absolutely need to know where they and where the water sources are, and we need to be familiar with the terrain. The ICRC's water and habitat engineers therefore collect data using their GPS devices and then upload it onto maps.

Before 2003 we occasionally used this technology in the field. Then we hired GIS specialists who joined our teams of ICRC delegates. Since 2006, our water and habitat unit has been providing mapping services to any ICRC department that requests them.

We recently set up an online geoportal that enables all our staff members to produce their own tailor-made maps. The geoportal provides a geographic depiction of a range of key data, such as the location of warehouses, stock levels and aid-distribution sites.

How do you rate the potential of this new technology?

GIS tools and collaborative approaches drawing on data gathered by networks of volunteers are becoming increasingly important for humanitarian organizations. These tools and methods make it possible to gather and exploit invaluable local and worldwide data that was previously non-existent or too complicated to process. This helps us improve the ICRC's efforts to come to the aid of those in need.


Photos

René Saameli, the ICRC's GIS coordinator 

René Saameli, the ICRC's GIS coordinator
© ICRC

A screenshot from openstreetmap.org of Walikale, a town in North Kivu province, in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

A screenshot from openstreetmap.org of Walikale, a town in North Kivu province, in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.
© ICRC

Walikale, DR Congo. ICRC staff working on completing a map of Walikale that the OpenStreetMap community of volunteers helped to draw up from a satellite image bought by the ICRC. 

Walikale, DR Congo. ICRC staff working on completing a map of Walikale that the OpenStreetMap community of volunteers helped to draw up from a satellite image bought by the ICRC.
© ICRC

A screenshot of the ICRC's geoportal, showing an altitude profile of Walikale, in DR Congo. 

A screenshot of the ICRC's geoportal, showing an altitude profile of Walikale, in DR Congo.
© ICRC