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Chapter 3.4 Tools and approaches

Geospatial analysis and mapping


Geospatial analysis – often translated into maps – to identify locations, concentrations     of people and transport routes, among other things, has been used widely in urban humanitarian response for some time.+See for example D. Smith, ‘Kosovo: Applying GIS in an International Humanitarian Crisis’, esri, 2001 ( More recently, geographic information systems

(GIS) have provided additional analytical capability to crisis response, combining and visualising spatial data in new ways.+GIS was first used in the humanitarian sector in mine action, and has also been used in the health sector, particularly for epidemiology.

This section+This section benefited from inputs by Paul Currion. discusses the development and use of GIS and mapping in humanitarian action. Examples are provided from Haiti, Guinea, Iraq, Syria and Nepal. This section links closely to a number of others, in particular assessments and profiling, which use mapping to visualise data (Section 3.6).

3.4.1 GIS and mapping

One of the biggest challenges for humanitarian action has been the lack of up-to-date and accurate maps to guide decision-making. This has changed radically as spatial data has entered the mainstream through the increasing availability of remote sensing (primarily satellite) imagery, the digitisation of a wide range of maps and the arrival of the Global Positioning System (GPS) into civilian use. In urban areas, providing coordinated management information linked to space, density and access is of course especially helpful.

As the internet has enabled people to connect to commercial services – most obviously those provided through mobile phone networks, such as Google Maps and Uber – geospatial for analysis has become useful, not just for technical specialists working in GIS, but also for the general public. This became clear in the response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake, when geospatial tools combined with networked communities to enable the real-time updating of visual information that involved affected communities themselves.

Advances in mapping using geospatial analysis allow  humanitarian  actors  to  assess,  plan, target and coordinate assistance more effectively and efficiently. Recent research+D. Paulus et al., ‘Turning Data into Action: Supporting Humanitarian Field Workers with Open Data’ in Proceedings of the 15th ISCRAM Conference, Rochester, New York, 2018 (, cited in H. Campbell, ‘Maps, Models and Data Management: Geospatial Analysis in Shelter Response’, in Global Shelter Cluster, The State of Humanitarian Shelter and Settlements 2018 (Geneva: Global Shelter Cluster, 2018) (, p. 155. identifies three particular applications: improving situational awareness – knowing which organisations are operating in specific areas, what they’re doing and how to contact them; needs assessment – where ‘a single, integrated, localized overview of needs across all sectors’ can be achieved; and operational circumstances – ‘knowing the available resources in the region, and logistical options to deliver aid and mobilise these resources’. These are illustrated in the example in Box 3.7.

Box 3.7 Ushahidi and crisis mapping

The Ushahidi platform was one of the first to take advantage of the spread of the internet to enhance mapping capabilities. It was created in Kenya as a means of monitoring violence during elections in 2008, but its deployment in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake brought it to wider public attention and helped people recognise the potential of crisis mapping. Ushahidi was successful because it:

• Filled information gaps during the first days and weeks, before the UN and large< organisations were operational.

• Provided situational information for small NGOs that did not have field presence.

• Helped small privately funded responses to target needs (through having access to up-to-date information).

• Provided situational awareness with a geographic precision lacking in other tools available to the public.

• Directly engaged Haitians and the Haitian diaspora.

Figure 3.4 illustrates the kind of information that was mapped, including infrastructure damage, hazards and security threats.

Source: Ushahidi (


Figure 3.4 Map showing camps and destroyed housing

3.4.2 Crisis mapping

Crisis mapping is undertaken by a wide range of organisations.+Many of these organisations are members of the International Network of Crisis Mappers: These include NGOs providing mapping services and staff in humanitarian emergencies, for example MapAction ( and CartONG (, as well as volunteers working remotely from around the world to support responses, such as the Standby Task Force ( Crisis mapping helps organisations to coordinate better as maps can provide a shared awareness of who is doing what, where and when (often referred to as ‘4W’).

Crisis mapping has expanded to include new data sources. Building on map data and satellite imagery, crisis mapping also includes crowd-sourced information and data collected by drones.+For further information on the use of drones in humanitarian emergencies, see OCHA, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in Humanitarian Response, OCHA Policy and Studies Series, June 2014 ( Geospatial analysis of this kind is not exclusive to urban response, but there tends to be more spatial data covering a denser population over a wider range of sectors in urban areas. Both residents and responders also have access to and experience of richer communication technologies than in rural areas, creating more potential, both for faster and wider data collection, and for analysis to inform decision-making.

The diversity of crisis mapping initiatives can be seen in Table 3.1, which shows a sample of crisis mapping efforts between 2010 and 2011; there have been many more such initiatives since then. Because of the grassroots nature of many of these projects, there is often little continuity between them, and it has been difficult to track them and learn from them.

3.4.3 Crisis mapping in urban conflict contexts

Mapping is especially helpful in conflict contexts to track changes in security conditions, protection issues, ‘no-go areas’ and population movements. The Urban Analysis Network Syria (UrbAN-S) project, operated by the Joint IDP Profiling Service (JIPS),+See uses mapping as a key element in its profiling. JIPS is working with a number of partners, including iMMAP+See and Mercy Corps, ‘to provide up-to-date and holistic analyses of critically-affected cities   in Syria’, with the aim of providing usable information to local government, NGOs and UN organisations. The project uses an area-based approach (see Section 3.2) to gather and present information, including damage assessments and city profiles (see Section 3.6).

Table 3.1 Crisis mapping initiatives

Case Haiti January 2010 United States April 2010 Russia July–September 2010 Japan March 2011 Libya Spring/summer 2011
Crisis Earthquake Deep-sea oil rig explosion Wildfires Earthquake/tsunami Political crisis
Initiator Individual/organisation Grass roots (Louisiana Bucket Brigade (LABB)) Individual Individual/organisation Intergovernmental organisation (OCHA)
Main partners Emergency Information Service (EIS), InSTEDD, Ushahidi, Haitian telcos, Tufts University, US State Department Tulane University Disaster Resilience Academy Russian bloggers Georepublic Japan, OpenStreetMap Foundation Japan UNOSAT, NetHope, volunteer technical community
Aim of the map Report emergencies, public health issues, security threats, infrastructure damage, natural hazards, services Track oil spill effects and response, provide visible testimony of community impacts To link those who need help with those who want to help, listed assistance centres Reports and notices from public and private officials, news on disasters, evacuation centres and requests for help Track conflict events (armed confrontations, attacks, etc.), list needs and responses, track mass displacements
Who used the map Emergency responders, diaspora communities, media, government officials Local stakeholders (citizens, universities, businesses, etc.), media Local stakeholders (those needing and offering help), media Local stakeholders, diaspora community, public and private actors, media Emergency responders, diaspora community, government officials, media
Role of the map Test-ground for crisis mapping, better maps of Haiti, reference point for crisis responders Provided public insight and accountability, information on clean-up efforts Delivery of relief Go-to map for corporations, government and organisations, created transparency in crisis relief Increased situational awareness
Role of government Core partner (US government) Not directly involved, aware of the map, provided information Not directly involved; after crisis, Civic Chamber of Russian Federation became involved Not involved initially, became involved by submitting reports Intergovernmental body (UN) involved and led the effort
Source: Center for Security Studies (CSS), ETH Zurich.

Two examples of crisis mapping, in relation to the Ebola response in West Africa and in the response to the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal, are given in Box 3.8.

Box 3.8 Crisis mapping in West Africa and Nepal

Humanitarian Open Street Map Team and the Ebola response

The Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team+See (HOT) developed from an informal group of volunteers into a registered non-profit organisation with full-time staff. HOT has built a volunteer community providing map data for humanitarian response based on OpenStreetMap (OSM) (

HOT was active during the 2014 Ebola response in West Africa. MSF-Switzerland deployed a GIS Officer to Guinea and acquired satellite images, but decided to outsource the creation of detailed maps of cities and major roads to HOT. Within three days, 244 volunteers had mapped three priority cities, and within five they had mapped more than 90,000 buildings, which would not have been possible for the GIS Officer working alone.+MSF-Switzerland, GIS Support for the MSF Ebola Response in Guinea 2014, July 2014 ( A review of HOT’s work found that it had been valuable in the Ebola response, particularly where data could be used by decision-makers to allocate resources.

HOT has partnered with MSF and the American and British Red Cross Societies to launch the Missing Maps Project (, an open, collaborative project whereby members of the public help to map areas where humanitarian organisations are responding to crises. HOT has also moved beyond crisis mapping into community-based mapping run by implementing organisations. This is part of a wider trend as networked technology has enabled local communities to engage with crisis response in the same way as international actors, and facilitated coordination between actors inside and outside the crisis area, where spatial data becomes a useful focal point for coordination.


Post-earthquake crisis mapping in Kathmandu

In response to the 2015 earthquakes that struck Nepal, Kathmandu Living Labs (KLL)+KLL is a not-for-profit civic tech company founded in 2013 following a World Bank project mapping critical geographical and infrastructural features in Nepal on OpenStreetMap. See launched the QuakeMap to enable users to report their needs to emergency organisations. KLL worked with other organisations, including HOT, to understand  what maps were needed for earthquake relief; online volunteers around the world used post-quake satellite images to update pre-quake maps, while KLL staff scraped images of damage from social media and mapped the damaged city on foot. QuakeMap was used by search and rescue teams, emergency services, international relief agencies and the Nepalese army, which downloaded reports from QuakeMap every two hours, passed on requests for assistance to their relief division, verified reports and updated the database once problems were resolved.+J. McMurren et al., Nepal: Open Data to Improve Disaster Relief, Open Data for Developing Economies Case Studies, 2017 ( QuakeMap closed to new reports in July 2015, but KLL continued to work on mapping projects, as well as becoming involved in other data collection projects related to disaster risk management in Nepal.

For a further description of KLL’s work following the earthquakes, as well as other organisations, see J. McMurren et al., Nepal: Open Data to Improve Disaster Relief (London: ODI, 2017) (


Figure 3.5 provides an example from the Global Shelter Cluster of mapping in Mosul in Iraq.

Figure 3.5 Locations of shelter and non-food items, Mosul, Iraq, 2017


In summary, recent developments in geospatial technology provide valuable ways of visualising data in spatial terms. This is particularly helpful in urban contexts, which are often defined and described in physical and spatial ways. Such information can promote coordination efforts, as witnessed by the presence of maps on the dashboards of a number of cluster websites. It also provides a simplified visualisation of complex data for use by a wide range of actors, not least affected people themselves. Presenting maps digitally also allows for quick updates that can keep up with the fast-changing conditions typical of crises and post-disaster contexts.

Useful resources

City72 Toolkit (

Crisis Mapping Program, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, 2018 (

‘Drones in Humanitarian Action’ (

Humanitarian Innovation Fund, Humanitarian Crisis Map for the Central African Republic (CAR), 2012 (

MapAction, Field Guide to Humanitarian Mapping, 2011 (

P. Meier and J. Leaning, Applied Technology to Crisis Mapping and Early Warning in Humanitarian Settings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, 2009) (

A. Obrecht and M. Thomas, Mapping a Response: Using Satellite Images to Aid Humanitarian Action (London: ALNAP/ODI, 2016) (

‘OpenStreetMap in Humanitarian Response’ (