Geographic Information Systems is a powerful tool in the hands of NGOs or Non-profit organizations, the understanding and use of spatial data in an organization is no-longer a luxury!
It is the missing link in how donor aid can be effectively used in Africa, and donors are beginning to realize this, because of the effectiveness of maps and spatial data in creating project visibility, transparency and accountability.
GIS grew out of an idea of taking geographic knowledge, map layers or map data and putting it in digital form and then being able to analyze it and use it for various applications. Mapping used to require a lot of specialized skills and expensive software – but not anymore.
There are enough inexpensive or free software (QGIS) and cheap hardware that can be used to promote a cause or aid humanitarian efforts. Here are a few pointers for any NGO that is looking to leverage mapping technologies for their cause.
Maps for visualization
A picture is worth a thousand words!. A map or satellite imagery of the affected area can communicate the problem much more effectively. Whether it is drawing the world’s attention to a humanitarian crisis or protecting environment, maps can tell a more compelling story.
One can use tools like Google Earth, Google Maps or other open-source alternatives like open street data, open layers, map server, open aerial map etc. to build maps on the internet. Google Earth Outreach has great examples of NGOs leveraging geospatial technologies.
Mobile Phones and GPS for fieldwork
Field data collection is also an integral part of what organizations do. GPS devices can help capture the exact location of a place and tie it with data about that place. Collecting location of water pumps in a rural area, or capturing the location of illegal tree logging etc. can be done easily with a handheld GPS device.
Free GIS software like QGIS can process this data and help do detailed analysis or create maps. An example is a group using field mapping to carry out Citizen Water Quality Monitoring of local river. With the advancement of mobile technology in Africa, data collection has never been easier, cheaper and time saving. The Open Data Kit (ODK), has made data collection fun and effective.
Maps for Disaster Response
Imagine your job was managing emergency operations to get people out of a situation which was about to get hit by a mud slide or get people rescued in a situation where there has been a flood or earthquake and you needed to understand all the road condition and all the real-time situations and you needed a common operating picture for all of that, GIS can help you do that. In a disaster, relief agencies need fast and accurate answers to ‘where’ and ‘how much’.
Satellite images and field surveys can answer these accurately. GIS analysis in situations like flooding can pinpoint areas that are likely to be affected the most. Before/after analysis of satellite image can provide a good estimate of the scale of the disaster. A great example is a group called Map Action that uses mapping technologies extensively for collecting and disseminating information about disasters around the world.
GIS for decision making
Imagine that you’re in the centre for disease control and you are about to be hit by a pandemic like Ebola, Marburg, bird flu and so on, and you needed to map everything and understand what was going on, you needed to understand the relationship between this disease and the environment that was causing it and get people emergency supplies, GIS can help you do that.
NGO’s can use mapping not only to effectively communicate externally, but also internally for better decision making. Where the resources should be allocated? Which regions need more attention? etc. are the questions that can be answered by simple GIS analysis.
For example, when faced with an epidemic or emergency, an NGO helping victims can use GIS to setup a medical camp in a location that would serve the largest amount of population.
Finally to put all this into perspective imagine this for second,….. two NGO’s seeking for re-funding on a similar project , one presents a 30 page report and the other 5 page report with several illustrative GIS generated maps. Of the two reports which one will most likely be paid attention to?…….Don’t be the NGO that gets left out, this is because GIS creates visibility, transparency, accountability, that has for long been lacking in many organizations.