The town of Lira in Northern Uganda does not have a fire department. Its buildings are built so closely together that a small fire can quickly escalate into a major disaster as commonly used construction materials like straw and wood fuel the flames.
In neighboring Gulu, a town about 64 miles away, emergency responders face equally daunting circumstances. Response teams are often hindered by a lack of planning capacity because even the largest roads are not mapped out.
“Responders need to know how streets are laid out so they can figure out how to get closest to a fire,” said Robert Banick, a geographic information systems (GIS) analyst for the American Red Cross.
On August 30, Banick will head to Gulu to work with the Ugandan Red Cross on improving their emergency planning and response capacities via improved mapping, which has lagged behind rapid population growth over the past two decades. His visit marks the second phase of a mapping project in both Gulu and Lira that is being supported by Red Cross volunteers around the world.
More than 20 volunteers gathered at the American Red Cross’ International Response Operations Center on August 19, World Humanitarian Day, to partake in what they called a “mapping party” – a massive effort to map out major roads, footpaths, residences and commercial buildings in Lira and Gulu.
“The first phase is mostly general terrain and land uses. The second phase will provide more specific information about important community infrastructure that you can’t get from satellite images,” he said.
The Humanitarian Open Street Map Team (HOT) was an important partner for the event, hosting some of the data on their servers, facilitating the pre-party training, and helping to organize and promote the mapping party via social media and their listserv.
“HOT is the foremost model for this type of thing; they have some exquisite mapping projects in Indonesia and Haiti,” said Banick. “I’ll also be using some of their training materials when I visit Uganda.”
The base map for the project, Open Street Map (OSM), is a global open source mapping platform, meaning it is accessible from anywhere in the world; the maps are free to the global public to copy, distribute and adapt. The goal is a higher quality and more accessible product for those who need it most, a welcome concept in the world of humanitarian assistance.
Weaving new information technologies into humanitarian response in the developing world is an innovative trend. Using commercial satellite images shared by the U.S. State Department to identify and map much of each town, the group was able to concentrate on mapping downtown and urban centers where risks from emergencies tend to be more severe.
“Sharing satellite imagery directly with the OSM community is still in its early phase for us,” said Joshua Campbell, a GIS architect with the State Department’s Humanitarian Information Unit. “We actually had to pull the Gulu images from back in March because of the rainy season; the more recent shots were totally cloud-covered.”
With the clearer images though, the mapping party was an overall success.
“I would say we mapped about 50 percent of the towns, and definitely the most difficult parts, especially in Gulu,” said Banick. “The State Department did us a huge favor by giving us easy access to the imagery.”