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A change in US law has made it legal for firms to publicly display images from satellites with resolution high enough to show objects such as manhole covers and postboxes. Previously, companies were prohibited from showing images in which objects smaller than 50 centimetres were visible. Reporting the news, an article by Wired.co.uk said it “was hoped that disaster relief would become easier as a result of the changes”. 
Yet ever greater detail in satellite images is not necessarily the key to effective disaster response, says Liz Hughes, CEO of MapAction, a not-for-profit organisation that collects and maps information relevant to the first responders after a disaster.
Hughes tells me that relief workers need access to information about the situation on the ground quickly in order to help as many people as possible after a disaster. And she says ensuring the accuracy of this information is more of a pressing challenge than generating maps with ever-higher resolution.
It’s routinely possible to map data sourced from people on the ground using free online tools. Using anything from photographs taken with mobile phones to eyewitness testimonies communicated through email or social media, local people could provide tip-offs that a road is flooded, for example, or that no food is getting to a specific area. After receiving such information, organisations like MapAction would put it on a map and supply it to humanitarian response organisations.
Although this mishmash of geographically labelled — or geotagged — information is valuable, it’s not perfect, says Hughes. This is because there may be conflicting reports or data may be difficult to map accurately. And, in the frantic rush to get help to survivors, emergency workers need trustworthy information to make decisions.
“So, for us, a lot of geotagged data on a map isn’t sufficient,” Hughes tells me. “That’s not to undervalue it, but it doesn’t give a rapid analysis to a UN assessment team that they need to do their job in the short time frames that they’re working to.”
She adds: “What we’re trying to do is show a more consolidated picture” by providing a synthesis of the data that has been assessed and then mapped to give the humanitarian community an immediate overview of where various needs are (see example map below).
One important way to get reliable information is to train emergency relief workers to use GPS (Global Positioning System) devices, Hughes tells me. This means they can quickly report details on the ground and organisations such as MapAction can be confident that they are geographically and factually accurate.
“We spend quite a lot of time when we’re participating in training events for the UN or with NGOs showing people how to use GPS,” she says. “Because if they’re out in the field and they see a bridge that is down — if they can just capture that coordinate and bring it to us — we can put it on a map very easily.”
This is vital, she says, because “we can only map what we’re given. People will quite often give us information that they’ve written on a scrap of paper in the field. That’s fine: we’ll take anything people want to offer us. But the clearer the location is, the quicker we can map it.”
Joshua Howgego is SciDev.Net’s deputy news and opinions editor. @jdhowgego