Why GIS Mapping Technology is a Powerful Tool for Humanitarian Aid


Humanitarian Crisis

Direct Relief was honored with the 2013 President’s Award from technology company Esri for outstanding use of mapping software known as geographic information systems (GIS) last Monday at the Esri International User Conference. Throughout the rest of the conference, while listening to terrific workshops and paper presentations on topics from cartographic design to the exploration of Mars, I had a chance to reflect on why GIS has been such a powerful tool for Direct Relief, and where that tool may be helping us to go in the future.

Showing Supporters Exactly Where They’re Making A Difference

GIS has revolutionized our ability to communicate the full scope of our work accurately, openly, comprehensively and in compelling visual fashion. Perhaps the best example is the newly-launched Direct Relief Aid Map. By using the Aid Map, anyone interested in Direct Relief can easily search, navigate, and view all of our relief efforts, anywhere in the world, at any time. No one is left wondering ‘Where did my contribution go?’

Facilitating Collaborative Action

Together with the Fistula Foundation and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), we built the first-ever Global Fistula Map to understand where, why, and how women who suffer from this devastating birth injury throughout the developing world both can and cannot access life-restoring surgical treatment. Organizations are now able to better target scarce resources where they are needed most. The Global Fistula Map demonstrates that effective spatial analysis, delivered openly and publicly in a collaborative form and tied to efficient support systems, can motivate action on challenging global problems.

Analyzing Spatial Data to More Effectively Tackle Global Health Challenges

Humanitarian mapping enabled by GIS allows Direct Relief to analyze the causes and consequences of our support across multiple dimensions. In a recent collaboration in Ethiopia with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR); and Ethiopian Health and Nutrition Research Institute (EHNRI), GIS is used as a common platform for public health laboratory data. Mapping helps our partners understand links between all of the various inputs (material goods, training, repair and maintenance, test outcomes, etc.) which comprise the structure and operations of the system. They can then build strong laboratory systems capable of tackling challenges such as the spread of multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis.

What’s Next?

In the next stage of GIS implementation at Direct Relief we are increasing the speed and scope of our mapping efforts. Web mapping platforms like ArcGIS Online enable us to compile event-specific interactive maps of disaster response in near-real-time. New tools like esri Story Map allow us to craft location-specific narratives about the work our partners are able to do with Direct Relief’s support. Enhanced analytic tools from optimized hotspotting to spatial regression analysis let us test out hypotheses about the causes and consequences of humanitarian aid.

The future of GIS at Direct Relief is one of integrated, online, high-speed, analytically, visually, and narratively rich cartography – of map-making as continuous global thought, communication, and social action.

View Direct Relief’s current mapping efforts at DirectRelief.org/Maps

Editor’s note: The Global Fistula Map was migrated to the Global Fistula Hub in 2020 to better understand the landscape, known need, and availability of fistula repair services around the world.

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