How Maps Helped Fight Ebola (Part II)

Last year, I wrote a case study for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) on how sending a dedicated cartographer/GIS officers to Guinea helped the fight against Ebola in the early days of the epidemic. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, but one could argue that this only showed how one specific GIS offer was helpful in one specific location.

This year, MSF broadened the scope and commissioned a follow-up case study, which has just been publish. This new case study “GIS support for the MSF Ebola response in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone” looks at the response across the three most affected countries and the experiences and performance of the nine GIS officers who were deployed on a total of 16 missions.

While the results are not very different from the first case study, it puts the lessons learned in Guinea on a much more solid foundation.

The thing that I found most surprising while talking to MSF staff was how quickly operational staff have embraced maps – not just in epidemiology and logistics, but particularly in outreach and health promotion.

It is clear that better maps and other GIS products can have a profound positive impact on operations. But it is also clear that this very much depends on the GIS officers’ skill to proactively communicate what he/she can offer to operations.

Recommendations from the case study:

General

  • Headquarters should proactively deploy dedicated GIS staff to the field in contexts where direct contact with field operations adds significant value, such as where the close and timely monitoring of the spread of an epidemic is essential.
  • Base maps of acceptable quality did not exist in the affected areas. Given the usefulness of having good base maps, MSF should identify current areas of operation where the organization expects to continue to work and try to produce base maps for these areas. The GIS unit, acting as a specialized front office, should seek support from initiatives such as the Missing Maps Project.
  • Programme staff sometimes do not require the very high standard of maps that GIS officers produce. The GIS unit should explore whether Excel templates can be standardized so that programme staff can use them to produce their own geographic visualizations.
  • MSF should continue to take advantage of crowdsourcing to create base maps. To facilitate this process, the GIS unit should continue to engage in a dialogue with the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team to better define expectations from both sides. Issues to be covered include the availability of GIS unit staff to answer questions and provide feedback, public communication and how to formally end the cooperation once the request has been fulfilled (deactivation). Human resources
  • People skills and a self-starter mentality are at least as important as the technical skills for the acceptance of GIS officers as part of the team. Until GIS is better understood by programme staff, GIS officers need to be advocates as much as service providers. Recruitment should take this into account.

Organizational

  • Physical proximity increases information exchange, formal and informal communication, and teamwork. Where possible, GIS officers should share the space with the department that needs their services most. This can also mean that GIS officers rotate, depending on where they can add the most value during a given phase of the operation. This is independent of the question of line management.
  • The GIS unit should increase awareness of its services during training for field staff, either prior to deployment or when field staff come to headquarters for training and discussions. Infrastructure
  • MSF should explore further how Android phones can be used for mobile data collection, including the collection of GPS coordinates. The approach should consider two scenarios: one in which MSF provides smartphones, and the other where local staff already have smartphones.
  • While internet access is not essential for all aspects of the GIS officer’s work, many maps can only be produced with sufficient bandwidth. The lack of a good connection also means that remote support becomes difficult or even impossible. MSF should prioritize internet connectivity in locations where a GIS officer is being deployed.
  • GIS officers should download all available map data before deploying since the internet connection may be too slow for large file transfers.
  • Since GIS officers deploy with non-standard computers, they need to be equipped with recovery CDs that allow them to restore their systems, including specialized software and drivers.
  • GIS officers should deploy with a dedicated A3 colour printer (as a minimum size) as well as ink cartridges. Before deploying, the GIS unit should evaluate whether A2 and A1 maps can be produced elsewhere in the country.