MapAction uses Esri IT to help the Philippines

MapAction volunteer Wai-Ming Lee tells Rebecca Gibson how Esri’s digital mapping technology helps in the wake of natural disasters

Rebecca Gibson
Rebecca Gibson
By Rebecca Gibson on 23 December 2013
MapAction uses Esri IT to help the Philippines

Tell us more about MapAction and how it works with Esri.

MapAction is the world’s only non-governmental organisation (NGO) with a capacity to deploy a fully trained and equipped humanitarian mapping and information management team anywhere in the world, often within just hours. Our voluntary teams are all qualified geographic information systems (GIS) mappers and we use Esri’s ArcGIS platform to manipulate spatial information and display it as 2D or 3D digital maps. Esri’s ArGIS platform, which runs on a range of Microsoft technology, can be used on server, mobile, desktop and cloud applications. The ArcGIS software suite is donated for free and Esri also supports MapAction by offering training facilities, marketing assistance and other similar services. All of the kits we deploy in the field are also Microsoft Windows-based, for example, we use Dell laptops operating on Windows 7, Windows XP and Windows Server 2008.

How did MapAction use Esri’s GIS technology when Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines?

Many meteorologists predicted this typhoon was coming, so MapAction was able to collect GIS and spatial data to track its path long before it made landfall in the Philippines. Although we had a basic idea of when the storm was likely to hit and which areas were most likely to be affected, it was lot more powerful than anyone had anticipated. According to reports from the field teams, the devastation on the ground is almost as bad as, if not worse than, the destruction caused by Hurricane Ike and other storms in Haiti in 2008.

Almost immediately, MapAction deployed field teams – we currently have a team in Manila and Tacloban – to offer support and provide mapping services to the UN, the Filipino government and other NGOs. Our main aim is to provide relief teams with basic maps that give a clear, consistent, coherent and comprehensive picture of the situation. Esri’s GIS technology plays a huge part in this – they say a picture is worth a 1,000 words, well a map is worth a 1000 pictures.

What will make MapAction’s services valuable as the situation stabilises?

Our unofficial motto is ‘aid in the wrong place is no aid at all’ and as the situation in the Philippines begins to stabilise, finding the areas that need resources will become even more important. In these situations, things change very rapidly and after a couple of hours, maps become outdated and useless. Our maps have become a trusted and definitive resource for humanitarian teams because we ensure they are continually updated to reflect the conditions on the ground. For example, if someone says that particular road or bridge is missing, we will update our maps, preventing people from referring to outdated data and endangering lives. We are also able to distribute these maps quickly, ensuring that everyone who needs them gets them. Ideally, we try to print paper maps, but we also produce soft copies, which are uploaded to our website and distributed to the field teams via tablets, smartphones and laptops.

Why do you like volunteering for MapAction?

MapAction is a largely voluntary organisation and besides five full-time employees, only has a small pool of about 50-60 volunteers, but we haven’t missed any major disasters for the last ten years, which is amazing! When a disaster like Typhoon Haiyan occurs, there’s usually a call for medics, firemen, the army and volunteers with practical field skills, but MapAction gives IT geeks the chance to use their skills to help people. It’s quite satisfying that something as simple being able to produce a coherent and consistent map can make such a big difference.

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