Mapping the needs: new technologies play an essential role in the Cyclone Idai response

Buzi, Mozambique - March 2019

Mozambique 2019 © Pablo Garrigos/MSF

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.

GIS response to Cyclone Idai

Volunteer contributions

In Zimbabwe, of which very few detailed base maps exist, MSF GIS officer Last Prosper Mufoya provides GIS support for MSF operations. When the cyclone hit, Mufoya immediately activated the Missing Maps community to create maps of the worst-hit area, Chimanimani. “Chimanimani was totally cut off from the rest of the world, as all roads leading to it were damaged and most bridges were washed away,” says Mufoya. 

Using satellite imagery, the volunteers focused on capturing roads, buildings, and water drainage systems, since very little of this data was available on OpenStreetMap. “Volunteers from all corners of the Missing Maps community, including our Zimbabwean chapter, worked tirelessly to contribute data on the tasks,” says Mufoya. 

The base maps of Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Malawi—which experienced dramatic flooding caused by the weather systems associated with the cyclone—produced by the volunteers have been distributed widely to all organizations involved in the emergency efforts, helping them to gain a clear picture of the situation on the ground and to plan a quick and effective response.