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Mapping information for disaster relief

In the past, post-disaster assessments were very hard to do, and were often inaccurate. Today, satellites capture with amazing detail the effects of a natural disaster over the area where it has hit, so clicking over a map on a screen gives aid suppliers a big portion of the information they need. High-tech mapping using satellite images and radar technology, among others, made a big difference in the cost of organizing the humanitarian effort in the wake of the recent tsunami in the Indian Ocean.

According to Nick Veck, director of InfoTerra, a European provider of satellite imagery, these maps point out crucial details for special aid tasks. Traveling from point to point on a flooded area, for example, is no easy task. During the recent tsunami, a pilot saved invaluable time in saving victims when he used a map showing road blockages created with the help of radar technology provided by the European Space Agency.

During a recent presentation at IDB headquarters, Veck emphasized that the availability of geographical information helps reduce risk, according to evidence shown by the non-profit organization Respond.

Respond was founded by the European Space Agency and international organizations working in development aid to improve access to maps, satellite imagery and geographic information. The organization works at all parts of a crisis cycle where geographic information helps better deploy development aid. It also supports training and assistance in the field, and forecasting and alert services. Core users include governments, but mainly international organizations, such as the United Nations' International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, and the Red Cross.

Geographical information provided by Respond includes all kinds of maps, imagery, field data, elevation models, and crisis specific information, such as damage maps, refugee information sheets, or maps to help target immunization and mosquito spraying.

Layers of data displayed over maps have been useful in the environmental impact assessment of reconstructing the region hit by the tsunami, Veck noted. Data include number of deaths, survivors, injuries, damages, as well as camps and schools attending victims or refugees.

These maps are not only useful in natural disasters but in emergencies such as the case seen in Al Fashir, Sudan, where millions of people have been forced out of their homes. In that specific case, grid maps are proving useful to pinpoint geographical areas where certain diseases are spreading.

In an effort to provide rapid assessment maps for major crises, Response has a website including free mapping resources for the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, the Darfur crisis, and other recent or ongoing crises. 

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