#FedGIS: Making Informed Aid Decisions with Maps



Our Research and Analytics Associate, Jen Lemberger, reflects on the Esri Federal GIS Conference, where policy makers, analysts and key federal government staff came together to learn how Geographic Information Systems (GIS) can help move the country forward.

Though Direct Relief does not receive government funding, I was invited to speak at the Esri Federal GIS Conference held February 10-11 in Washington, D.C. to help bring attention to how the international humanitarian assistance community is using GIS technology to more effectively conduct aid efforts.

GIS describes any system designed specifically to capture, store, manipulate, analyze, manage and present geographic information. Last summer, Direct Relief was honored with the Esri President’s Award for outstanding GIS work in improving the health and lives of people affected by poverty, disaster, and civil unrest. The Federal GIS Conference provided an opportunity to share the process, infrastructure, and thought that is behind every Direct Relief GIS project.

On Monday, I was a part of the conference’s Global Aid, Development, and Conservation Immersion Summit, which gave an in-depth look at how organizations are using GIS to develop effective programs, monitor and evaluate their activities, target the needs for aid and development, and collaborate with other organizations. Other speakers on my panel included representatives from The World Bank and the Wildlife Conservation Society

I explained how mapping has helped Direct Relief be more transparent by showing supporters where and how their donations are making a difference. One example is the recently launched Aid Map, which allows users to easily search and view relief efforts anywhere in the world, at any time. It helps make the data on our shipping history understandable and relevant.

Today, I was part of a workshop about how the aid community is using mapping technology to respond to increasingly destructive natural disasters – such as Super Typhoon Haiyan which recently devastated the Philippines as well as Superstorm Sandy, which hit the East Coast in October 2012. Simple, compelling, accessible, and authoritative maps are essential for coordination on the ground during all phases of response, recovery, and reconstruction.

Importantly, open data via map services from other organizations such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Open Street Map, and DigitalGlobe add to the partner and demographic data that Direct Relief already has. These maps then allow information in real-time during emergencies, which helps Direct Relief make better decisions regarding effective allocation of resources during and after a crisis.

Individuals from other global nongovernmental organizations, Health and Human Services, and the military spoke with me after the presentation. Different aspects of the maps and data collection process were compelling to each individual, but underlying all the interactions was the support and understanding for the need for shared data and resources to better respond in disaster situations.

Overall, discussions at the conference centered around open data, which Esri has taken to heart. This spring, Esri’s open data initiative will come to life as users will be able to far more easily publicly publish their data and map services. Organizations will be able to create custom views of their public data and related items. The open data theme has been running among federal, development, and nonprofit organizations for awhile now and Esri’s efforts will only aid in furthering this movement.

Direct Relief has always been committed in their GIS work to being as open with data as possible. With the new platforms and apps that Esri will be releasing, Direct Relief will be better enabled to organize and present our data and map services for public consumption and use in collaborative scenarios, whether that is to further humanitarian aid efforts or to add context in related fields such as development.

During the conference, I heard someone say “making informed decisions is impossible without maps.” And indeed, as the technology moves forward, this element of Direct Relief’s aid work will allow us to make smarter decisions to better help the people we serve.

View more of Direct Relief’s maps by clicking here.

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