Cyclone Idai hit Mozambique and Zimbabwe in mid-March, flooding vast swathes of land; leaving hundreds of thousands of people homeless; and destroying buildings, crops, and infrastructure. Just after the cyclone made landfall, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) sent four experts in geographic information systems (GIS) to the region and mobilized thousands of volunteers around the world to produce high-quality maps of the worst-hit areas to help emergency teams mount an effective response.
These mapping experts supported our emergency response teams with detailed maps of the region in MSF’s largest GIS response since the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa. GIS services can combine multiple layers of information on a single map, helping responders to understand the scale of an emergency, plan logistics, improve epidemiological surveillance, and coordinate with other organizations.
A versatile tool
“With such a large-scale natural disaster, the needs are most acute at the onset of the crisis,” says Audrey Lessard-Fontaine, head of MSF’s GIS Unit. “At the onset, the situation is changing continuously—whether that’s road access, water levels, or damage assessment. We need that information to plan how we are going to reach the affected population.”
GIS plays an increasingly important role in planning operations and supporting decision-making in emergencies. “It is now almost a reflex for MSF teams in an emergency setting to ask for GIS support for epidemiology response by mapping out cases to see where patients come from,” says Lessard-Fontaine. “They also need GIS support for water and sanitation assessments, to map out where the water points and latrines are.”
The Missing Maps Project
A key element of the GIS response is base maps, which show buildings, waterways, and road networks in the area. GIS experts need these base maps to provide high-quality analyses of the affected areas for use by MSF’s logisticians and epidemiologists.
Surprisingly, such base maps do not exist for many of the regions where MSF works, which are often remote, disaster-prone, or home to some of the world’s most vulnerable people. This lack of maps presented a major challenge—until a simple solution was found, known as the Missing Maps project. With the help of OpenStreetMap—a crowd-sourced world map—thousands of volunteers worldwide digitize satellite imagery and create maps of the most vulnerable areas of the world for use by aid organizations.
The Missing Maps project was launched in 2014 by a number of humanitarian organizations, including MSF. When Cylone Idai struck, its volunteers were quick to swing into action. Already they have mapped more than 200,000 buildings and nearly 17,000 kilometers [more than 10,500 miles] of roads in the affected areas.