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3Qs: Graduate students map Nepal relief response

guay250As rescue efforts continue in Nepal, collecting, examining, and disseminating information is critical. Everything from the location of the most impacted areas, to resource needs, to where relief facilities are being set up, must be readily available to those providing relief and those in need of relief.

Graduate students in Joseph Guay’s Crisis Mapping for Humanitarian Action course in the Geographic Information Technology program are doing their part to help with the Nepal earthquake relief response through crisis mapping deployments. We asked Guay, a lecturer in the College of Professional Studies and humanitarian technologist researcher, to discuss his students’ work and the importance of information mapping in a crisis.

How important is crisis mapping in the planning and execution of response efforts to crises such as the earthquake in Nepal or the Ebola outbreak?

Effective information management—the collection, analysis, and sharing of accurate, timely, and actionable intelligence—is a critical part of the response effort, especially as physical and digital accessibility to badly damaged areas of interest remain a challenge. Assessment data about infrastructure damage; locations and resources of healthcare facilities, camps, and nongovernmental organization field offices; and the needs of vulnerable communities are useful to a variety of individuals trying to help find missing family members or determine accessible land routes for the distribution of food aid.

Luckily, access to information communication technologies such as the Internet, social media, mobile communications, and commercial remote sensing offers up cost-efficient, rapid, and innovative ways to capture and analyze the growing and varied data exploding out of Nepal.

Digital Globe and Google’s Skybox have offered up satellite imagery to the humanitarian community, free of charge so that platforms like Tomnod and Humanitarian Open Street Map can harness the power of the crowd—literally thousands of online volunteers—to detect damage to homes, roads, and municipal buildings. Artificial Intelligence for Disaster Response is being used to process and filter the hundreds of thousands of Tweets pertaining to the #NepalEarthquake and #NepalEarthquakeResponse, so organizations like Micro Mappers can assess damage in photos with the click of a mouse.

The Standby Task Force has been activated to support information management and geo-spatial mapping of information resources for responders. They have prioritized and contributed valuable intelligence on urgent needs, photo and image collection, affected areas, camp information, and offers of assistance.

How are your students assisting with the response efforts in Nepal? What data or information will they focus on?

Students in my Crisis Mapping for Humanitarian Action class are encouraged to participate in either the Standby Task Force, Micro Mappers, or Humanitarian Open Street Map deployments as part of their “digital deployment” assignment. Last fall the students joined up with the Standby Task Force to help verify, update, and geo-tag information about the status, capacity, and current use of health facilities, hospitals, and community care centers in West Africa during the Ebola epidemic.

It’s a great way for them to contribute to the earthquake response while getting hands-on experience with the latest mapping tools and platforms out there. Steve Purcell, who is co-teaching the course, and I integrated this as a course module so the students get to share their experiences through discussion boards, and they’ll also have the chance to complete a case study on the Nepal earthquake crisis in terms of digital, crowd sourced efforts and the overall response.

This is part of the central message of the course: Students are not only introduced and trained on the technology being used in the field, but are also required to reflect on the forces that are driving such technology shifts, and to think about the ethical, practical, and political challenges from working in this field.

What will be the primary focus of rescue and humanitarian groups in the coming days?

Communities impacted from an earthquake of this magnitude have a variety of needs stemming from immediate protection of physical safety and security, access to life-saving services and basic subsistence, and psychosocial support. These needs arise from the complex interaction between the trigger event—a 7.8 magnitude earthquake and subsequent aftershocks—and underlying structural factors that existed before the earthquake.

According to the April 30 Situation Report of the United Nations’ Office of Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs, search and rescue and aid agencies responding to the crisis in the coming days are focused on providing shelter to the displaced. Government reports suggest more than 215,000 homes have been damaged or destroyed, and in Kathmandu alone there are an estimated 24,000 internally displaced people registered in tented settlements, although many more are likely seeking refuge in informal settlements and in the rubble of partially damaged—and still vulnerable—homes. Identifying missing persons and effectively and ethically managing dead bodies are still a major part of the response. Shelter, food, security, and health are among the highest prioritized sectors.

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