ACTED REACH team taking GPS coordinates to map Gendrasa refugee camp, Upper Nile ACTED REACH team taking GPS coordinates to map Gendrasa refugee camp, Upper Nile Photo credit: Gwenn Dourthoumieu/ACTED
Using GIS as a planning and coordination tool in refugee camps in South Sudan
by Clay Westrope and Emilie Poisson May 2013

In natural disasters and complex emergencies, access to high-quality, timely information is a critical precondition for effective aid delivery. Unfortunately, recent crises have exposed the shortcomings of the humanitarian community in rapidly gathering and effectively using information on the key needs and priorities of affected populations. Such shortcomings are largely due to the lack of dedicated interagency resources for the collection, analysis and dissemination of key information. As a result, post-emergency contexts are often characterised by significant gaps.

The first gap concerns the emergency phase of a crisis, when the supply of data is insufficient to meet demand. As data products become increasingly available in the weeks following the onset of an emergency, however, demand for them decreases as humanitarian actors increasingly focus on their operational priorities. The second gap lies in the recovery and development phases, when the availability of information products exceeds demand. This often leads to a decline in the regular supply of information products due to the lack of demand, resulting in a lack of preparedness once a new crisis occurs.

REACH in South Sudan

An interagency initiative of two NGOs (IMPACT Initiatives and ACTED) and a UN programme (UNOSAT), REACH was founded in 2010 to help meet information needs in the aftermath of a crisis. In partnership with UNHCR and the US Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (BPRM), REACH was deployed to the refugee crisis in South Sudan in 2012. Beginning in September 2011, fighting in Blue Nile and South Kordofan, combined with the destruction of crops and livelihoods, has resulted in the displacement of approximately 175,000 refugees (110,000 in Upper Nile State and 65,000 in Unity State). In response, UNHCR established four camps in Upper Nile State – Jamam, Gendrasa, Yusuf Batil and Doro – and two in Unity State, Pariang and Nyeel. In addition, the Yida settlement currently houses an estimated 63,000 refugees from South Kordofan. The security situation on the border between Sudan and South Sudan continues to deteriorate, and OCHA expects that emergency assistance will need to be provided to an estimated 150,000 additional new arrivals from South Kordofan and Blue Nile states during 2013.

westrope-fig-1The South Sudan refugee crisis has suffered from substantial information gaps, largely stemming from a lack of coordinated approaches to data collection and inadequate resources to operationalise such a data collection effort. In particular, shortcomings in the availability and reliability of data about patterns of refugee flows over the border, settlement area characteristics and overall social organisation have limited the speed and effectiveness of the humanitarian response. To address these gaps, REACH, in partnership with UNHCR, developed a simple methodology aimed at bringing together data from reliable sources and representing it in both text and geospatial formats, such as static and interactive webmaps. Figure 1 illustrates the process.

The methodology used by REACH combines a householdlevel unique identifier – or number that is assigned by UNHCR to each individual refugee household – with information on social group membership of each household and a geo-referencing of each household’s shelter or tent. This is achieved in three steps.

First, by identifying a standard, common and unique UNHCR field of data – a ration card or registration number – that all refugee households receive, information from previously disparate sources can be linked in a simple database. Data on the demographics of each refugee household (from the UNHCR database), the physical location of that household (by GPS point) and its social profile (from REACH mapping assessments) are placed side by side in a database, allowing for queries between these fields.

The second step of the methodology involves strong interagency cooperation and input. Each agency has a well-defined role in the camp linked to sectoral responsibility (for example medical relief, water delivery and food distribution). The methodology capitalises on that specialisation by forming partnerships and agreements with other agencies for regular data delivery on sector-specific aid provision in a standardised format. By linking this data with the household-level unique identifier in the database, it can then be associated with the demographic, social and geographic data mentioned above. With this information, highly complex queries can be made from many different fields of data.

The third step applies spatial representation to the collected data, which has now been linked in the database. The database serves as the backbone of an interactive map that displays each asset and refugee household in the camp, overlaying high-resolution satellite imagery provided by UNOSAT. The map is then updated with additional information from assessments and other data fields collected by aid agencies, providing geo-referenced aid provision and planning data at the press of a button. Aid actors are able to track aid provision throughout the camp, while also creating custom-made, tailored analyses that drastically improve planning and coordination. In addition, the data is used to produce static maps as requested.


westrope-fig-2The database and maps (both static and interactive) make household-level data readily available for customised geospatial analyses and for informing aid planning and response. We will use Jamam refugee camp (Upper Nile State) to illustrate how this technology can be used for water provision, sanitation, community mobilisation, medical care and aid tracking. In the first example, one of the agencies responsible for water supply has used static maps showing population concentrations and distances from current water supplies to plan new tap sites with more comprehensive coverage (see Figure 2). The agency has also used an offline version of the interactive map to measure how far distant populations are from the current pipeline system in order to plan new pipeline construction.

westrope-fig-3Also in Jamam, the social organisation information in the REACH database enabled UNHCR and ACTED to reorganise the camp by place and tribe of origin, enhancing community mobilisation and representation in the camp. An agency responsible for medical care has used static maps in planning a cholera vaccination campaign. REACH was also able to generate a random sample of households for a Centers for Disease Control survey. It has improved the accountability of aid by enhancing its traceability down to the household level, and has located individuals with specific needs to facilitate follow-up care. Figure 3 illustrates this through a static map showing food-recipient and non-recipient households and their locations.


In an emergency as dynamic and remote as the South Sudan refugee crisis, REACH has faced two main challenges: first, standardised provision of sector-specific information and accessibility to consolidated data by all agencies; and second, the constant movement of refugees into, out of and within camps, necessitating regular updates of the information consolidated within the database.

Using even simple technologies is a challenge. With limited internet access and low bandwidth, transferring data between agencies can be difficult. In an attempt to resolve some of these problems, REACH has developed an offline version of the interactive webmap that can be used without internet access. While this has been effective, providing regular access to data remains a challenge. REACH currently has a team in the field helping aid actors to adapt and customise their own databases to make them compatible with the REACH database. The team holds meetings with aid agency staff to stress the importance of receiving updated geographic data in a timely fashion and in a standardised format, so that it can be readily incorporated in the database and subsequent map products.

Timeliness of information has been the second key challenge. While geo-referencing data enables REACH to track population movements, these updates must be done on a very regular basis, putting time and resource strains on the field teams. Methods for streamlining this process are being tested. It is critical that field teams establish a close relationship with the community liaison and mobilisation teams in order to monitor changes within these dynamic environments.


Recent natural disasters and complex emergencies have exposed the humanitarian community’s shortcomings in gathering and effectively using information on the key needs and priorities of affected populations. REACH has begun to apply simple technologies to fill these gaps, and will continue to work with agency partners and other humanitarian actors to improve the methodology. REACH is using a customised version of the methodology employed in South Sudan in the Syrian crisis, filling a much deeper information gap there.

Clay Westrope is REACH Assessment Specialist. Emilie Poisson is ACTED South Sudan Country Director. The REACH website is