GPS in humanitarian settings

As I had the chance to note in another post, consideration of the spatial dimension is often forgotten in aid work, and a whole set of tools and approaches are still not known by many practicioners. I happened to see drafts of settlement plans sketched not with a GIS program nor with AutoCad but with nothing else than Excel.

Proper knowledge of geographical inormation tools would make aid work easier and more effective, and should ideally be an integral part of the body of knowledge of any aid worker.

I am not lost, you are lost

Luckly enough learning resources abound. Particularly relevant is Mapaction Field Guide to Humanitarian Mapping, a primer to all the basic tools in terms of mapping and GIS that a humanitarian aid organization might need.

A particularly helpful tool contained there is the Waypoint recording sheet (p. 63), a simple logbook to systematize registeration of waypoints. Given the somehow cumbersome user interface of many GPS devices, it is common to register a point withouth bothering to write down some basic information, “because I will in any case remember what it is about”. Result is that often people end up with a bunch of anonymous waypoint which means very little to anyone.

I happened to use a version of this recording sheet when I had to carry out an assessment in a camp where clashes had happened a few days before. Using a GPS device and the logbook we could take down relatively accurate information about the areas that had been mostly affected and the patterns of displacement within the camps – not an easy task without spatial information.

The resulting information could then be stored in an Excel file (this time an adequate use), which could be plotted easily with a GIS program or on Google Maps/Earth. This is an example of the result in .xlsx and .kml format (here for the .kml uploaded to Google maps. For reasons of opportunity i mixed up the original coordinates, so that the points are projected somewhere in central Italy).

The information can then be used as basis for a more refined product to be disseminated, but as a starting point and a quick and dirty working tool to inform decisions, this basic product is usually good enough.

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