Technology comes to the rescue in disaster zones


It is an all too familiar story. A natural disaster strikes in a remote part of the world, causing devastation and suffering. Villages are levelled, people are forced into camps, and chaos ensues.

It is happening now in China, after the 7.8 magnitude earthquake centred in Wenchuan shook the entire country. And in Myanmar, Cyclone Nargis has left its mark on the country's geography, with vast swathes of the Irrawaddy delta flooded and whole towns destroyed.

With as many as a million people now homeless in Myanmar, the rush to move inland to safety in makeshift boats and crammed trucks has transformed the human geography of the region.

In such desperate times, relief workers are in urgent need of fast, detailed and accurate information of the new situation on the ground.

In other words, they need a new map.

And, thanks to a series of technological innovations, mapping natural disasters has become a much more effective business, handing cartographers an increasingly vital role in relief work. The development of mobile mapping software, the spread of GPS (global positioning system) devices, and the wider availability of high-resolution satellite imagery have transformed the process of mapping a disaster zone.

Within minutes of a disaster, an international chain of production begins that will locate and assess the emergency and begin to map its effects. First, a disaster of a significant magnitude will trigger responses from centres such as the United States Geological Survey (USGS), which sends text message alerts to agencies likely to be involved in the relief effort.

A simple map showing its epicentre is made available on its website. Soon, other mapping centres kick in, such as the Global Disaster Alert and Co-ordination System, which adds population information. Already, agencies will have an idea of the physical and human geography of the area.

But the work of building accurate maps of the crisis begins in earnest once humanitarian workers have reached the affected region.

"Though people want to know the basic information about a disaster's focal point, they also want to know its extent," says Nigel Woof, operations manager of Map Action, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that specialises in co-ordinating efforts to map disasters.

"Burma, for example, has been affected across a massive area, and to differing degrees. That information is not available at the start, but it is crucial to ascertain as it will be a major influence on how a relief project unfolds."

Woof's organisation has mapped emergencies in Jamaica, Bolivia, Ghana and the Dominican Republic.

Myanmar is the sixth incident it has dealt with in 12 months. However, while Map Action may come up with the finished product, mapping is a group process.

United Nations organisations, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the major charities will typically set up camp together – known as an On-Site Operations Co-ordination Centre – in order to share the mountains of information they collect. That information pours in from a range of sources – e-mails, text messages, photographs and plain old word of mouth. The trick is to turn it into a complete data-set and a usable map.

Once a big operation is in full flow, maps will be redrawn and updated each day.

"At the height of a relief effort, there will be hundreds of agencies clamouring for different maps," Woof said.

"Often, they will give us a very specific brief and they need a finished map in as little as an hour. We do our best to oblige."

Requests range from basic physical and population data to information on land mine locations. Other maps show "3W" data – it stands for: "Who does what where?"

It may seem highly developed, but the process has evolved in a very short time.

Just four years ago, when an earthquake hit the city of Bam in Iran, search and rescue teams had to make do with a map sketched from a tourist guide. Its crudity meant that searching was inefficient, with some areas initially missed.

Now, a range of new technologies has revolutionised the process. By far the most important has been the rapid development of geographic information system (GIS) technology, which allows the capture, storage and manipulation of geographic data, which can be turned into something people can use.

The work could not have been done without GIS," Woof said. "To be able to combine data and change maps very quickly, especially in the field, would have been an impossibility."

The 1999 Valzur avalanche in Austria was one of the first times GIS was deployed.

Even then, cartographers were still using desktop computers to run the programmes – no good for working in the field. Their incorporation into laptops provided the breakthrough. The boom in GPS devices has been another plus, with more relief workers carrying them; as well as reporting the name of a new settlement, they can supply its exact co-ordinates. Finally, the availability of satellite imagery has made the cartographer's job easier. Tracking changes in a coastline after a natural disaster is no longer such a problem, with the USGS and Nasa providing free images from their jointly managed Landsat satellites under an international agreement.

Organisations have also been quick to exploit Google Earth, the web-based global mapping application. One of the first to spot its potential to aid humanitarian causes was the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, which used it to highlight the unfolding disaster in Darfur. By pulling together information from eye-witness accounts, UN agencies and the US State Department, it mapped the location of burned villages and refugee camps over Google Earth images.

"It is powerful, because anyone can go and see the images and data for themselves," says Michael Graham, a co-ordinator on the project. With 400 million people having downloaded the Google Earth software, their mapping of the tragedy suddenly had a huge audience. In the month before the release of the Darfur Google Earth application, about 2,000 people used the museum's website to see how they could help Darfur. The month after, the figure had risen to 55,000.

Now, big business is on board. Collins Bartholomew, publishers of the Collins and Times world atlases, have agreed to hand over their basic geographical digital data – or "base maps", in cartographical jargon – to Map Action, giving the organisation an instant starting-point from which to develop the more specific maps needed in an emergency. The timing could not have been more fortunate; no sooner had the agreement been reached than Nargis struck the coast of Myanmar. Within 24 hours, aid agencies had access to an accurate 1:5,000,000 map – enough detail to identify cities and vital infrastructure, such as main roads. It should save relief workers yet more time.

More innovations are on the way. In particular, the focus is turning to convergence of mapping technologies. The integration of photography and geo-positioning is beginning to emerge, enabling photographed locations to be pinpointed instantly. New web-based applications will help organisations to share data quicker than ever. That prospect excites Woof: "Suddenly, we will have a peer-to-peer community of map-makers."

But problems remain. In spite of the hi-tech toys, the task of collecting human geography data still relies on having people on the ground. When access is difficult, as in Myanmar, the cartographer's job is harder.

And the technology can be expensive; data transmission from portable satellite modems costs $10 (Dh36.7) per megabyte, and satellite image files can take up hundreds of megabytes.

Add the power cuts that can occur in the field, and the perennial struggle for funding, and it is no surprise that the teams trying to map natural disasters have their work cut out. For any would-be disaster cartographers, Woof has some words of warning: "You are often working in a less than ideal environment. You have to be resilient. You are incredibly busy, and the team often works around the clock. You are certainly not working office hours – put it that way." (The Independent)


Time is of essence

  • Rapid response: how order emerges from chaos
  • Zero hour: Natural disaster strikes without notice, triggering international rapid-mapping responses
  • Minutes later: Geographical survey centres, like the US Geological Survey, send alerts to relief agencies. A simple location map is put online, with the epicentre identified. Other agencies add basic population information
  • Within hours: Relief workers carrying GIS (geographic information system) technology are deployed to the affected region. They begin to gather updated information from the affected scene
  • Once aid workers are on the ground: An On-Site Operations Co-ordination Centre is set up to co-ordinate the relief effort. Mapping information from the field is collated there
  • Within 48 hours: The latest field information is combined with accurate 1:5,000,000 "base maps" to form the first complete maps of disaster-zone data
  • In following days: A daily routine emerges, with basic maps updated every 24 hours. Bespoke maps requested by relief workers can now be constructed within hours