Relief work: mapping disaster zones

Called to action

19 July 2018

Alan Mills details the vital role of charity MapAction in helping relief workers

When local services and systems collapse in the wake of a disaster, international relief workers reach out to help, and volunteers from MapAction often go with them. The situation can be chaotic, confusing and, in some cases, dangerous. Aid workers have to assess needs rapidly and get aid to the right places.

To do this, they ask several key questions.

  • What has happened? Was it an earthquake or hurricane, or a longer-term epidemic or drought?
  • Where has been affected? How big an area has been hit, and what are the characteristics of the terrain?
  • Who and where are the affected people? How many people live in the area and how many are in distress?
  • How can we reach them? Are the roads passable? Can we land helicopters near settlements?
  • What do they need? This can range from the basics of food, water, shelter and medicine to other needs such as communication and help rebuilding their homes and livelihoods.
  • Who is providing help? Which relief agencies, government offices, international organisations and NGOs are on the ground and what are they doing?
  • Is the help getting to where it is needed? Can we monitor the effectiveness of the relief effort?
  • Do we have the common operational picture? Do all the actors and the communities involved understand the answers to these questions, and are they working together as effectively as they can?

Humanitarian mapping charity MapAction has a large team of geographical information and land surveying professionals who volunteer their time and skills and are ready to travel to disaster zones at very short notice to help coordinate responses. Working with humanitarian agencies, governments and in-country response teams, MapAction volunteers consolidate vast amounts of data into easily understandable products as fast as possible – often turning around map requests in less than a day. Our team includes geographical information system (GIS) specialists from private consultancies, government agencies, academic institutions and the humanitarian sector.

We meet regularly for training, not just to hone our mapping skills but to ensure that we are aware of all the difficult conditions in which we may have to deploy, and understand the humanitarian system so we can best support it.


Critical to MapAction’s success is the speed at which we can deploy. When a disaster occurs, our office team alerts volunteers via SMS, who then see whether they can clear their schedules so they can mobilise. Once a team is picked, the rest of us obtain as much information about the country and disaster as we can. Meanwhile, our logistics team plans flights and gets the kit, which is always kept ready, to the people who need it. Within 24–48 hours, we can be on the ground helping aid workers.

The conditions vary; sometimes we are in a capital city in a normal office environment, with air conditioning, electricity and internet all taken for granted. On other occasions we can be under canvas, working in extreme heat, battling to make ourselves heard over the noise of relief planes.

We have sent teams to almost 80 disasters, including cyclones in the South Pacific, floods in many parts of the world, the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, earthquakes in Haiti, Nepal and Pakistan, migrant crises in Europe, Libya, Syria, East Africa and Bangladesh, wildfires in Chile and hurricanes in the Caribbean.

Hurricane season

Last year’s Caribbean hurricane season was our most intensive and extensive period of operation. We had teams across the region supporting the UK Overseas Territories of the British Virgin Islands, the Turks and Caicos Islands (see panel, below), and Anguilla, and also helped extensively in Dominica and supported regional relief coordination from Barbados.

Turks and Caicos Islands


Although I have been volunteering with MapAction since February 2016, the response to Hurricane Irma was the first opportunity to test my skills on a real-life mission. Problems with flights caused me to miss my connection to Jamaica on 16 September, and I was initially worried that my late arrival would let people down; but then I remembered my training to make the most of every situation.


With the extra time, I made rough and ready base maps for emergency responders on the ground to annotate with their knowledge of the current situation. Arriving later than planned also meant I shared the tiny plane to the Turks and Caicos Islands with the Jamaican group from the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency. By the time we landed, I was already considered part of the local team, and I helped communication between the international and in-country responders immeasurably.


For the first few days, I helped assess the damage and identify the most vulnerable areas to assist recovery teams in prioritising their response. This meant I saw for myself the impact of the hurricane, which, in the case of the poorest settlements, had meant complete destruction.


This provided context for mapping requirements and led me to create an assessment plan for the territory to coordinate recovery responders and minimise the risk of missing data. It improved data acquisition to allow a full-country overview of the damage severity, and 2 weeks later was needed again for recovery assessment after Hurricane Maria, another category 5 hurricane.


I wasn’t sure what additional help I could offer, but I was pleasantly surprised that I could make myself useful elsewhere in the islands. Once word spread that I was a duty flood forecaster for Scotland, I was asked to put together a 10-minute briefing for the British Army, all NGOs and the UN on the areas that would be most vulnerable to the incoming hurricane. Although I am not a meteorologist, I was able to use meteorological tools to gather information and advise the various organisations in the same way that I prepare briefings for the flood risk in Scotland, so these groups could make informed decisions.


My first MapAction mission was a fantastically interesting experience. I learned a lot, met some great people and saw a different response method to aid my professional work. MapAction enables me to apply my professional skills to help people in great need, and that is incredibly rewarding.


Karen McDonald is a senior scientist focusing on flood risk data management at the Scottish Environment Protection Agency

I myself worked with another volunteer, Kirsty Ferris, and headed out to the Caribbean ahead of Hurricane Irma’s landfall on 6 September. It became apparent that it was the northern Caribbean bearing the brunt, so Kirsty went to Anguilla and I went to the British Virgin Islands, both as part of a larger team comprising members of the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA) and a UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination contingent, with others from the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID).

I’ve been on many emergency deployments since becoming a volunteer for MapAction, but this was special. Back in 2001, I lived and worked in the British Virgin Islands as National GIS Coordinator and know the archipelago of 60 islands and its people well. It seemed both sensible and right to go back and help my friends there. It was difficult enough to get in; the islands’ main airport control tower had been knocked out, closing it to commercial traffic, so our team had to hitch a ride on an RAF Airbus A400M Atlas alongside vital water and food supplies.

The short drive across the main island of Tortola to the capital, Road Town, gave a clear transect of the extent of the destruction. So many houses were damaged, most of them now without roofs. Boats, many of which are used in the islands’ yachting charter industry, had been tossed around like matchsticks. Roads were impassable. At 1 location, people were congregating on a beach as it was the only place to get a mobile phone signal.

We rendezvoused with the local disaster management team, then relocated to the only public building still operational, the Peebles Hospital, as the team’s own offices had been hit early in the storm. There was no spare accommodation in the hotels, so we also bedded down in the hospital’s chapel each night. For the 1st couple of days, we ate rations that we had brought with us.

Assessing the damage

Our main job was to assess the extent of damage, particularly on 2 of the sister islands, Virgin Gorda and Jost Van Dyke, with which there had been little contact since the storm. Jost Van Dyke is a small community of about 350 people. Many of the houses had been destroyed, with debris blown high into the hills above the 3 small settlements on the south coast, and there were several people needing medical evacuation. The largest beach bar was offering free meals to people in 1 village and a 2nd house at the east end was doing something similar.

On many small islands, where everyone is used to helping each other, they were able to roll up their sleeves and get the basics sorted. On Virgin Gorda, we saw how the storm surge had badly damaged the desalination plants from which the islands get the majority of their fresh water, and how tornados had ripped narrow paths of destruction.

On Tortola, most of the electricity poles and mobile towers had been snapped or damaged and the storm surge had pushed into houses along the north coast. With the data I had from my time working there, I was able to provide the Royal Engineers who were fixing the water and electricity supply with detailed maps of the assets across the islands. We also produced maps to support CDEMA’s rapid assessment, to highlight where the concentrations of damaged property were.

Fortunately, the loss of life in the Caribbean was low compared to some disasters, but the destruction of property and livelihoods, as well as a deep and extensive trauma across these small islands, was huge. For me it was also deeply personal – it was up to me to tell a friend who had been absent when the storm had hit that her house had literally blown away.

Changing trends

Humanitarian response is changing and MapAction is also evolving to meet new demands. In addition to responding as part of the UN system, we are increasingly working with regional and national mechanisms, such as CDEMA, which are becoming more established to coordinate aid delivery.

It’s also apparent that humanitarian agencies and others are much more information management-savvy than when we started out. We take care to remain flexible and adapt our products to more and more applications. We are also considering potential uses for new technology – for example, we have seen that drones are becoming more prevalent, and we want to find out how best to make use of the data they provide.

However, the situations in which we worked on these isolated, small island Caribbean states, with cramped working conditions, poor internet connections and many tasks to complete, show again how disasters completely disrupt normal life, and those who respond still have to adapt to difficult circumstances. The usual technologies and solutions do not always work. We have to focus our attention on collecting and providing good information so we can save lives and help populations recover from dreadful conditions. This will remain central to MapAction’s vision as we adapt and innovate.

Alan Mills is Preparedness Coordinator and Trustee for MapAction

Further information