GIS and Humanitarian Crisis

September 02, 2005

With a nod to International Blogging for Disaster Relief Day (Friday, Sept. 2). ... Crossposted on the DDN list.

I am beginning research into ways in which mapping technologies like GIS (wikipedia: GIS) are being used (and can potentially be used) to help avert or cope with humanitarian disasters.

The tragedy of New Orleans has given me some insight into the potential and limitations for this use of geospatial technologies. New Orleans below sea level Thanks to Andy Carvin for applying his blogging/networking skills to this problem and prompting this line of thinking (The Katrina Aftermath Blog) . Recent discussion on the Digital Divide List of geocoded pictures has also been stimulating.

GIS is a sophisticated, robust technology that is being used to map and analyze data in numerous fields, especially environmental studies and public health. One of the most compelling features of GIS research is that it takes advantage of the contemporary wealth of data that is collected by all kinds of environmental monitors. (eg: weather is monitored constantly, and thus existing weather datasets can be mapped geospatially to discover, for example, patterns in flooding or to predict the best time to plant crops.)

New Orleans has for some time been the subject of extensive GIS research because of its precarious position below sea level. The availability of this technology has, I feel certain, prevented or alleviated numerous problems created by the hurricane (perhaps, for example, by helping prepare the safest evacuation routes years ago). I am interested in discovering similar, existing applications for GIS in poorer parts of the world. I would also like to find discussion/research of potential uses, especially, again, in the context of poverty.

nigerCusory searches of the internet find that there certainly exists a great deal of straightforward mapping going on in terms of humanitarian crises, most notably (according to my notes) the indexes on These are extremely useful documents for creating awareness, but they are also rich, multilayerd documents for use by the aid workers and activists that cope with these problems daily. A .pdf file of the crisis in Niger, for example, can be a great way to understand the scope of the problem, but it also can direct the triage more effectively.

The center for New Orleans GIS research is at Louisiana State University; they have an excellent website that distributes their GIS data to the folks in the government that need the information. I doubt that there is any much more sophisticated model of GIS research. What fascinates me is that, although I am new to GIS, it appears that there is a strong "open source sensibility" about most GIS-- the information is provided free (though sometimes to a limited set of users) and is intended for extended, unmonitored use. How can this be expanded and reproduced in a way that promotes human development?