Issue 36 - Article 12

Mapping as a tool for planning and coordination in humanitarian operations

January 10, 2007
Mark Adams, GOAL Uganda

GOAL has implemented a multi-sectoral public health programme in Pader District in Northern Uganda since 2003. At the end of 2004, the agency developed a partnership with Ove Arup Ireland, the Irish arm of a leading global engineering group, which was interested in implementing a socially beneficial project in the developing world as part of celebrations marking its sixtieth year of operations. To identify an appropriate project, Ove Arup conducted a study of the infrastructure in Pader District, including water, power, sanitation, roads, health and education. Using Global Information Systems (GIS), Arup and GOAL developed a database and map of the district’s infrastructure. The aim has been to produce a comprehensive, flexible and expandable information base designed to meet different information needs. The use of GIS was a new departure for both GOAL and Arup, and offered an opportunity for both organisations to learn more about its potential.

The potential of GIS

GIS can offer significant benefits in terms of strengthening planning and coordination. The impact of maps in turning dense tables of information that people do not find easy to read or assimilate into easily understandable and attractive graphics is dramatic. One potential example is the presentation of water supply information. As part of the Water, Environment and Sanitation (WES) sector (now ‘cluster’), there have been ongoing efforts at district and national level to produce monthly updates on the supply of water in IDP camps, in order to identify priorities and gaps. These have not been effective due to poor reporting, poor coordination and the off-putting appearance of the large spreadsheets in which this information is presented. Delivering this data in the form of simple maps can make it much more intelligible, and a new UNICEF/OCHA project is developing and implementing a GIS-based reporting system for a small number of key indicators across all districts affected by the humanitarian crisis.

Other examples of possible uses for mapping and GIS include:

  • producing maps of camps and other locations as part of assessments and initial planning;
  • mapping population movements between camps or areas, so that agency responses can be reprogrammed;
  • mapping agency interventions against needs or population levels, to identify gaps and priorities;
  • comparing infrastructure and service delivery with populations (e.g. schools and health units with populations);
  • mapping service delivery of a comprehensive range of HIV/AIDS services at a district level to assist with the planning of new projects and meeting gaps; and
  • facilitating the coordination of government and non-government services at a district level, and coordinating the support of different donors to local NGOs at a district level.

GIS technology is relatively simple and cheap – at least in cash terms. Basic computers, Global Positioning System (GPS) units and software to download and manipulate the data and produce maps are all that are needed. The running costs involved in compiling, updating and disseminating maps are more significant, but not prohibitive. Producing simple maps of isolated locations – such as IDP camps – is relatively easy. Large-scale maps that provide more comprehensive data are more complicated and require more resources, not least because more actors are involved.

Having a clear set of objectives for the use of the technology is vital, as these systems can easily become self-serving tools, encouraging the collection of huge amounts of data that does not meet decision-making needs. These objectives can help in deciding which technologies to choose. In working with other agencies, we have seen different software packages being used for different mapping purposes, all drawing coordinates from standard GPS units. Although Excel can be used to create ‘quick and dirty’ maps to calculate the basic area of camps and the location of key infrastructure such as water sources, health units and schools, Mapsource – a free mapping software often distributed with GPS units – can provide similar but more sophisticated outputs in just a few hours. While these cannot really be described as ‘GIS’ applications, they do provide a quick way to graphically represent service infrastructure, and compare this with population. These maps could be used to measure change over time, such as the provision of services or the area of land under cultivation. For emergency interventions, this kind of capability can be a major addition to rapid assessment methods, and there is no reason why it cannot be adopted by agencies. The cost and the technical demands placed on teams are minimal.

True GIS applications – such as ArcView – are more expensive and more demanding in terms of staffing resources. Their potential is correspondingly greater, however, allowing for much more sophisticated and wider-scale collection and linking of data. This is both an opportunity and a challenge. While these systems can turn data into information on service delivery, distribution of needs and responses and so on, they can also encourage levels of data collection and analysis which do not serve immediate needs. For humanitarian operations this can seem like a distraction and an unnecessary investment in what is a fast-moving environment. Managing these differing expectations and views is an important challenge. A key issue – particularly for facilitating coordination – is having the capability to quickly produce maps, update them rapidly on the basis of new information and produce new maps that meet the needs of intended users. This requires being able to produce maps close to intended users, quickly and in line with their changing needs and interests. The high cost of producing hard copies of maps means that it may be best to rely on soft copies, so good communication systems to transfer large computer files are important.

Non-technical issues

Technology does not present the main obstacle in using mapping and GIS for humanitarian coordination and planning. Some basic technical issues hinder sharing of data, but these could be easily addressed. It is in other areas that the principal problems lie.

We found to our surprise that Uganda is making more use of GIS than Ireland. Having said that, it is still in its infancy, and that is one of the challenges. There are a plethora of initiatives to use mapping and GIS for humanitarian planning among NGOs, the UN and government ministries. There is, however, little or no coordination between these different initiatives, which is indicative of the key problem: the limited sharing of base data. Government ministries have been unwilling or unable to share data, often seeing it as proprietary. As a result, different actors are forced to collect the same data again and again, which is not only a waste of resources, but inevitably creates a situation where the same locations are recorded with different coordinates, resulting in differing maps and complicating coordination and joint planning.

A related constraint is the lack of any agreed ‘base maps’ with administrative boundaries. As a result even the first step in compiling a map – using a base layer which provides the administrative boundaries of a district – cannot be done without on-going discussions about where the boundaries of the district and its internal administrative limits actually lie. In Uganda this is compounded by a continuing process of decentralisation, which has seen the number of districts grow from 36 in 1995 to a planned 76 by mid-2007. Within districts, administrative boundaries are also being repeatedly redrawn. With no agreed, surveyed maps indicating where these different boundaries are, it is often difficult to agree on the most basic elements. It is clear that a reference centre is needed to provide reliable maps and good base data. This should be available free of charge or for a minimal charge; agencies can then tailor this to use for coordination or internal agency purposes. This is likely to begin to emerge in Uganda as OCHA is looking at developing a ‘spatial mapping’ initiative as part of its humanitarian coordination role. This would greatly facilitate the use of mapping and GIS by other agencies, and could be part of OCHA’s standard role in different emergency settings.

Currently there are efforts at a national level to address these problems of poor coordination, poor data sharing and a lack of agreed base maps through the sector and cluster coordination mechanisms, and particularly from within the WES cluster. OCHA, UNICEF, the Ugandan government and interested NGOs are working together to define and develop a management information system based on GIS that can regularly produce maps showing key data. If this proves successful, it will be a major step forward for coordination, and for making GIS a cost-effective tool for planning and coordination.

The context of a humanitarian emergency adds to the difficulties. It has been interesting to compare the expectations of Ove Arup, a Europe-based engineering company which expects clearly defined and agreed information, with those of an emergency response team, whose information needs are often more short-term and narrower, and who are more familiar with working in fluid situations where baseline information may be unavailable, invalid, or overtaken by events. Pader District – a new district only created in 2001 – has been very insecure for much of the last three years, and access has been difficult. Time in the field has been limited by curfews and security procedures. When opportunities to reach displaced populations have presented themselves, competing demands mean that gathering coordinates is often not seen as a priority. The limited geographical spread of individual agencies – a conscious strategy to maximise impact by focusing energies on specific populations – means that it is difficult to create comprehensive and accurate maps. This is a challenge we have not yet successfully met, but we believe that, as mapping becomes more widely understood and appreciated, this will become less of a problem.

Concluding thoughts Our experience of using mapping and GIS for humanitarian assessments and planning is in its early stages and has been mixed. We have glimpsed some of the potential, and we believe that GIS could serve a wide range of purposes, from rapid emergency assessments to in-depth planning, facilitating the analysis of humanitarian need and coordinating responses. We have also encountered many of the problems that are or can be involved in using this technology. The experience suggests that there is great potential and that GOAL needs to develop its own mapping/GIS capability as a humanitarian organisation. However, to be most effective, organisations with a wider mandate, such as governments or the UN, should make greater use of these technologies for coordination and planning purposes, and seek to provide base maps and data to the humanitarian community.

Mark Adams is Country Director, GOAL Uganda. His email address is:


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