Mapping for Emergencies: WFP’s custom mapping innovation informs humanitarian operations worldwide

By Vida Gabe

Access to information is one of the most important things humanitarians need in an emergency. In order for field officers to make decisions and undertake operations, they need to know how many people need assistance, where they are, how to reach them and what infrastructures and assets are available in an area. While many people have access to detailed printed or digital maps, the same is not true in the remote areas where humanitarian operations take place. Here, having access to a large scale map is a luxury, and the information they contain is precious. In the very early stage of emergency response, a highly detailed and up-to-date topographic map can mean the difference between a truck being able to deliver food and life-saving medication or getting stuck in front of a collapsed bridge; it can mean saving on expensive delivery means (such as helicopters) when cheaper alternatives (such as deliveries by roads or river networks) are available and sometimes more efficient.

Humanitarians on the field using maps.
One of things humanitarians need during operations is a topographic map of the areas of operations. Photo: WFP/Rein Skullerud.

Enter the recently launched Humanitarian Topographic Atlas (HTA), an innovation by a team from the Geospatial unit of the UN World Food Programme’s Emergency Division. First conceptualized in 2018, HTA was one of the participants of the WFP Innovation Accelerator’s Bootcamp in 2019 and a project under the Accelerator’s Sprint Programme since July 2020.

Andrea Amparore, Project Management and Development Lead for HTA says, “We’ve worked in all kinds of global emergencies over the past 10 years, from earthquakes to cyclones and conflicts. Each time, we noticed that it is usually very difficult for first responders to get a complete overview of the situation and have a clear picture of the extent of the impact. Maps that show the necessary details are usually only produced once the emergency has already started and this can take several weeks to be completed, which means that decisions taken in the first phase of an emergency are made with only partial information.”

The need to produce highly detailed topographic maps prompted Andrea and his colleagues, Thierry Crevoisier, Olaoye Somide and Vamsi Yarramaasu, to come up with HTA, a custom mapping innovation that incorporates data from various open-source databases and transforms this information into high quality, printable and up-to-date maps. These maps are updated on a regular basis and available for free to anyone working on humanitarian or development operations.

Screenshot of the HTA platform.
Screenshot of the HTA platform.
A screenshot of the HTA platform in full mode. Photo: WFP.

“A printed map is one of the best ways to communicate and share information with local stakeholders and communities, which often have scarce access to technology,” says Andrea, “A single high-quality map normally requires 6–8 hours of work if created manually, but with HTA, we have reduced the time it takes to create a topographic map from one day to a few seconds.”

Field-testing the innovation

Dimitris Karakostis who heads the WFP Geospatial Team in Damascus, Syria, says he and his team have been using HTA for the past 4 to 5 months. He shares that the platform has helped them focus their time and energy on other important tasks. “Having access to such detailed maps for the whole of Syria saves us from having to make them manually, which would take hours if not days. In some cases, it would be even impossible, given the limited access to some data.” He says, “Our security officers print these maps and then laminate them. They use whiteboard markers to mark on them security incidents, and other important information.”

Biplob Rakhal, a GIS Programme Associate working at the Engineering unit in the WFP Nepal Country Office, echoes this sentiment: “Nepal is vulnerable to frequent disasters like floods, landslides, drought, and earthquakes. So basic information would give us an idea of the terrain and topography of an area as well as find key places, settlements, logistic infrastructure and major transport networks. With HTA, we don’t need to wait for days to get the topographic map prepared and printed. Now we’re able to get the print ready map with the latest information at any point saving us both time and resources.”

Biplob Rakhal,GIS Programme Associate at the WFP Nepal Country Office uses HTA maps to identify trails and village locations. Photo: WFP/Shailja Ale.

Working collaboratively

The humanitarians making use of HTA maps are co-creators as much as they are users, feeding information to the platform to make it even more useful to field operations. Biplob explains that his team uses HTA to cross check and verify whether the information on trails and locations are being captured correctly. “In Nepal, we have implemented ‘trail and community infrastructure mapping’ in the remotest districts of Karnali and Sudurpaschim Provinces,” he says. “Updating and uploading the data collected from the field on OpenStreetMap (or OSM, one of the data sources for HTA) is one of the objectives of our project and we cross-check whether the uploaded information on OSM is captured in the (HTA) Atlas or not.”

Dimitris says that a similar system is being implemented in Syria. “We are also establishing a similar workflow for our colleagues from the Logistic Cluster. After they print and laminate these maps, they will share them with the truck drivers to mark on them the status of the road network. This is an easy, intuitive way to acquire information about the road network in an area. Later, we will use these data to create more specialized mapping products such as road constraints maps.”

A portion of the Syrian map from HTA.
A portion of the Syrian map from HTA.
A portion of the printable topographic map for the Daraa Governorate in Syria downloaded from the HTA platform. Photo: WFP.

Moving forward

The HTA team gave an online demonstration of the HTA platform on 11 December 2020 to WFP colleagues in the Emergency Operations Division and other units. The demo gave people the chance to immediately test the platform and provide feedback on their experience allowing the developers to further refine the platform.

In the future, the team plans to reach as many users as possible. While HTA currently has information on 170 countries, they aim to add more, eventually completing world coverage, including maps of developed countries.

Visit the HTA platform at https://hta.gis.wfp.org.

The WFP Innovation Accelerator sources, supports and scales high-potential solutions to end hunger worldwide. We provide WFP staff, entrepreneurs, start-ups, companies and non-governmental organizations with access to funding, mentorship, hands-on support and WFP operations.

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