Let’s get mappin’: building GIS capacities for anticipatory action


Karen Dall

Melanie Eckle-Elze

Alec Schulze-Eckel

Anticipation Hub
An aerial view of Rotterdam and the Europoort harbor

The need for spatial data in anticipatory action

Anticipatory action seeks to bridge the gap between preventive measures that reduce the risks associated with a hazard, and reactive actions that respond to its impacts. One example is distributing cash before a hazard strikes, which can protect people’s lives and livelihoods by enabling them to choose how best to reduce the expected impacts of the forecast hazard.

The development of an early action protocol (EAP), or similar plan for anticipatory action, is central to this approach. This outlines the pre-defined early actions that will be implemented when the pre-agreed trigger for a particular hazard is reached. EAPs (and similar plans) also describe who is responsible for taking the different actions, as well as when and how these actions are financed.

The development, implementation and evaluation of an EAP requires the management and combination of different datasets, often including spatial data. For example, a risk assessment combines information on vulnerability and exposure with the location of past hazard impacts. An impact-based forecast – which informs decisions on where to act ahead of a hazard – requires risk data to be combined with location-specific forecast data. Meanwhile, the evaluation of triggers requires the forecast and observed impacts of a hazard to be overlayed and mapped onto the hazard-affected area.

GIS: a valuable tool for anticipatory action

A geographic information system (GIS) can support many of the different phases of anticipatory action – from the development and implementation to evaluation of an EAP – through the organization, analysis and presentation of data. For example, in many risk assessments for drought, both static and dynamic indicators are combined using a GIS to allow for the identification of high-risk areas, as well as an understanding of the key drivers of risk (see Meza et al., 2021).

A GIS and its underlying database enable the organization, analysis, and quick and easy updating of data sets. They also offer options for visualizing data and making it usable in decision-making processes. Examples are available in a manual developed by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific and the World Meteorological Organization for operationalizing impact-based forecasting by using QGIS.

The power of GIS as a tool for anticipatory action is evident in many of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement’s forecast-based financing projects. For example, GIS has been used to create impact maps in the Philippines, and to select the area for implementation in Peru. Often, these systems are developed using regional or international GIS, and by regional and international GIS experts. In many cases, however, project staff are not familiar with basic GIS applications, data and geoinformation, nor with the opportunities and limitations of this technology. This limits the potential applications of GIS in a project.

Training in GIS for anticipatory action

Encouragingly, efforts to address these gaps in capacity are under way. One example is a mapping course developed by the German Red Cross’s regional forecast-based financing programme in Latin America. This aims to develop the capacities of National Society staff and volunteers, enabling them to produce maps (e.g., of risks and interventions) using a GIS; these are then used to activate the anticipatory action mechanism, among other applications. The training covers the basics of GIS, data collection and mapping methods, and is curated according to the interests of each National Society.

Additionally, the Heidelberg Institute for Geoinformation Technology (HeiGIT) and the German Red Cross facilitated two training sessions in 2022 on the use of geoinformation in anticipatory action. These were part of a training series on anticipatory humanitarian action hosted by the academy for humanitarian action (aha), led and conducted by the German Red Cross, with support from the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, HeiGIT and the Start Network. HeiGIT aims to improve the transfer of knowledge and technology from fundamental research in geoinformatics to practical applications, with a strong focus on humanitarian contexts, open-source data and participatory approaches. The training sessions allowed participants to benefit from HeiGIT’s related expertise.

The initial GIS training course – ‘The use of geoinformation in (anticipatory) humanitarian action’ – took place from 17-29 January 2022 and familiarized the participants with QGIS (a free GIS software) as well as the most important applications of geospatial data in humanitarian action. Participants were given an overview of existing data sources, including user-generated data such as OpenStreetMap, and the advantages and disadvantages of each source. They also learnt how to use this data systematically, with a focus on the use of geospatial data in the context of risk analysis to provide needs-based and anticipatory humanitarian assistance.

The second training course – ‘Current approaches and GIS methods to support anticipatory humanitarian action’ – took place from 14-25 March and built on the first. It promoted specialized tools for participatory data collection, such as the Sketch Map Tool, and advanced network analysis with the OpenRouteService. It also shared illustrative examples of GIS applications, the use of raster data and analyses, accessibility analyses, as well as local and community mapping approaches and their potential for the different phases of anticipatory action.

Upon completion of both courses, the participants were aware of potential – but also the limitations and pitfalls – of using GIS for anticipatory action; they also better understood how to handle the data and analyses from this tool. The underlying message of both training courses was: you don't need to be a GIS specialist, but you do need to know what GIS and geoinformation specialists can do for your project!

Various agencies took part in these courses, demonstrating the appetite within the humanitarian sector for a better understanding of GIS and its functionalities, and for enhancing data literacy.   Ideally, the participants are not only better informed about the uses and applications of GIS; they will also advocate for, and raise awareness of, the potential of spatial data and GIS in their organizations.

Next steps: building GIS capacities for anticipatory action

Based on this experience, HeiGIT and the German Red Cross will work on further disseminating GIS skills and literacy. They will also make the ‘GIS in anticipatory humanitarian action' webpage, which was used in the two training courses, a permanent online resource.

And, in light of the positive feedback and outcomes from both courses, they plan to hold further training events in 2023 – potentially with additional themes included!

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