Bridging Space and Disaster Response Communities
FIGURE 1. Photo of expert meeting that was conducted by UN-SPIDER in cooperation with Secure World Foundation at the Vienna International Centre, July 2011. Results of this and the Geneva meeting in November 2011 are captured in the full report, listed in Resources.
THE CARIBBEAN REGION, WHERE HAITI IS LOCATED, IS ANNUALLY EXPOSED TO HURRICANES and tropical storms, some of which trigger disasters that prompt requests for humanitarian assistance. Hurricanes Georges and Ivan are examples of events that have provoked extensive losses in Caribbean countries in recent decades. In every disaster, response efforts include the assessment of damages and needs, and such damage assessments usually find their way into situational maps depicting impacts on infrastructure, lifelines and other sectors of development. Of particular importance is the mapping of the road infrastructure, as such infrastructure is needed to deliver humanitarian assistance to the affected communities.
While the exposure to hurricanes is very well known to the inhabitants of Caribbean countries, the same cannot be stated about earthquakes. The 12 January 2010 earthquake that destroyed much of Port au Prince as well as surrounding communities in Haiti took the Caribbean islands by surprise, triggering fatalities beyond imagination, limiting response efforts on behalf of many government agencies, and demonstrating the very high but unperceived vulnerability to earthquakes in Haiti.
According to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO, 2011), more than 200,000 people lost their lives, more than 100,000 houses were destroyed and more than 200,000 houses were damaged. Destroying the facilities of the Civil Protection Agency and the primary and secondary facilities used as Emergency Operation Centers to coordinate efforts, and destroying the facility of the National Geospatial Information Center, the earthquake inhibited these two organizations from rapidly generating and providing maps concerning affected areas in the days that followed the event.
The humanitarian response to this catastrophe was huge, and many countries from around the world provided support to the response and recovery efforts. As in the cases of other major events, the United Nations’ Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response (UN-SPIDER) Programme supported response efforts. With the support of the Cartographic Section of the United Nations, it requested the activation of the International Charter: Space and Major Disasters, it mobilized its partners, delivered space-based data and information, set up a dedicated webpage in the UN-SPIDER Knowledge Portal to display information generated regarding this event, and conducted a technical advisory mission.
As part of its activities, UN-SPIDER facilitated communications and cooperation among the Civil Protection Agency, the National Centre for Geospatial Information of Haiti, the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) and the Information Management Unit of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, with a view to ensuring that technical assistance could be provided in the event of a future disaster (UN-SPIDER, 2010).
Unfortunately, the extensive damage to the local communications infrastructure inhibited many agencies from sending information generated abroad via typical internet channels, so direct shipments of information in the form of external hard drives and DVDs had to be used to send such information to those agencies in charge of relief operations in Haiti.
In contrast to previous disasters, the Haiti earthquake provided an opportunity for the volunteer and technical communities (V&TCs) such as the International Network of Crisis Mappers (www.crisismappers.net) and Open-StreetMap (www.openstreetmap.org) to support disaster response efforts through the generation of thematic maps using satellite imagery and global navigation satellite systems as a source of data. What made the difference in this case is the fact that space agencies provided satellite imagery for such communities to access free of charge as a way to assist them in the generation of such map (UN-SPIDER, 2011).
For example, The International Network of Crisis Mappers is the world’s premier hub for crisis mapping and humanitarian response. The network brings together a diverse set of individuals from the humanitarian, human rights, policy, technology, and scholarly communities to help catalyse communication and collaboration among a wide range of different communities with the purpose of advancing the study and applying crisis mapping worldwide. Throughout the year, the Crisis Mappers Network facilitates continuing virtual interaction among its members. As Jen Ziemke, co-founder of the International Network of Crisis Mappers comments (Ziemke, 2010), Crisis Mapping encompasses the collection, dynamic visualization and subsequent analysis of geo-referenced information on disasters, contemporary conflicts and human rights violations. A wide range of sources is used to create these crisis maps, such as events data from newspaper and intelligence parsing, satellite imagery, interview and survey data, and SMS.
Scholars have also developed analytical methodologies to identify patterns in dynamic crisis maps. These range from computational methods and visualization techniques to spatial econometric and “hot spot” analysis.
While scholars employ these methods in their academic research, operational crisis mapping platforms developed by practitioners have to carry out their work in support of emergency relief operations using more traditional tools and procedures. The Network of Crisis Mappers has established a series of conferences aiming to bridge the divide by bringing these scholars and practitioners together to shape the future of crisis mapping. The next conference for crisis mappers is scheduled for October 2012 in Washington, D.C.
Recognizing the relevance of such efforts carried out by the Volunteer and Technical Communities, UN-SPIDER and Secure World Foundation have been conducting a variety of activities to identify specific actions that could ensure closer cooperation among the crowdsource mapping, disaster management and space technology communities. Among them, expert meetings have been held, such as the International Meeting of Experts on Crowdsource Mapping for Preparedness and Emergency Response, which was conducted on 5-6 July 2011 in the United Nations Office in Vienna, and the second one, which was organized in the Palais de Nations of the United Nations in Geneva on 16 November 2011.
During such meetings, experts from the space and the volunteer technical communities recommended the need to raise awareness within the disaster management community regarding the innovative services provided by volunteer and technical communities. These meetings also contributed to the development of an understanding of the strengths and challenges of the communities (space, disaster management, and volunteer and technical communities) and to the exploration of ways to proceed jointly. One of the recommendations from the meeting was to plan a simulation exercise in Samoa in which the three communities would work together in a coordinated manner for the first time (UN-SPIDER, 2011).
The Cyclone simulation exercise for Samoa was carried out from 30 November to 3 December 2012, providing both a chance for all participating groups to bring their expertise to the exercise and a golden opportunity to test response plans and initiatives. A secondary exercise was conducted on 15 December 2012 to complete the objectives. These objectives included providing a number of volunteer groups an opportunity to train their teams of volunteers in a realistic scenario, several technology developers an opportunity to try their services with the volunteer groups, and the UN-SPIDER programme a chance to test the response and accessibility of space-based information to support such exercises. A detailed report can be found at the following website: http://crisismappers.net/profiles/blogs/report-for-dec-2011-samoa-cyclone-simulation-released. With the lessons learned in Samoa, a similar simulation is being prepared to be carried out in the Kingdom of Tonga in 2013.
The cooperation between UN-SPIDER and Secure World Foundation in this area continues in 2012 through the conduction of follow-up expert meetings (scheduled for Dec. 3-5) and is expected to contribute to the efforts that such volunteer and technical communities can provide when it comes to preparedness and response efforts carried out by the disaster management community through such simulations, exercises and other relevant activities.