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Tufts Crisis Mapping Class » Crisis Mapping » The Adventures of the Catholic Relief Services Team and Google Earth

The Adventures of the Catholic Relief Services Team and Google Earth

Last week we explored Ushahidi as a mapping platform for crises, in particular the earthquake in Rabat, Morocco. More recently we used Google Earth to map the cases we wished to deal with on the ground. After having experience with both platforms, we came to the conclusion that Google Earth offers better resources for our goals. For example, Google Earth provides better visualization of geographic satellite information such as the location of roads and buildings, and paths from aid stations to where it is needed. This was especially useful to us because CRS’ mandate targets the poor and the disaster stricken, who typically live in areas that aren’t mapped. For example, our crowdmap could not provide details of the shantytowns; thus, we felt that Google Earth was much more useful to plot the reports in coastal shanty towns and mark out the roads in detail in order to provide relief more efficiently. It gives us a better sense of the situation on the ground, especially since we have not been there before.

Another thing that Google Earth provides is the ability to add different layers and types of information. Adding pictures, videos and links allows us to present a more holistic picture of the situation on the ground. In addition we could add and customize different relevant points, like the Moroccan Ministry of Health who we plan to collaborate with for our intervention efforts. By plotting its location on the map, we can easily see its distance from our target populations. This will be very useful because it will provide a visual map of paths to and from the reports CRS plans to help with.

On the other hand, we found that it was a little difficult to share and collaborate on the information easily. Multiple people cannot work on a specific kmz file on different computers at the same time, as we could do with the crowdmap and with other programs like google docs. Instead, one person had to work on the same file and then send it around for others to add their input one at a time. This made it difficult to share and update information easily. This process also required quite a bit of familiarity with certain computer functions not commonly used by the general public.  Most of the Ushahidi platform, for example, was either self-explanatory or only required minimal instruction.  With Google Earth, we lost some information on the way and duplicated a lot of effort because it took awhile to understand how to use it. For Google Earth to be used by NGOs, mappers will have to be trained.  If they are not kept on staff, time will have to be spent on this training.

What our Google Earth map showed: what we wanted to convey, and why we chose our specific data visualization

We wanted to use Google Earth to visualise how we and other organisations could provide aid, ensuring a comprehensive plan that matches the situation on the ground. Google Earth could help by showing us the location of each report from the coastal shantytowns, and the most accessible paths to take in order to allocate resources and aid. It could also pinpoint the main resources that we may be able to leverage off, particularly the Ministry of Health.

Hence, we chose to divide our target population into three areas – the northern, central, and coastal shantytowns. By outlining each area with a polygon, we isolated the reports in each of the three areas in order to see the resources like hospitals, roads and aid centers nearest to those reports.  This can facilitate the division of CRS’ efforts based on geography, and each faction will have its own sub-map.

We also decided to mark out the three paths between the airport in Rabat and each of the three areas as we will be using those roads when CRS does enter Rabat. The ministry of health could be a base that we might work from, so we also marked out another two paths from the ministry of health (which is in the area marked northern shantytowns) to the other two areas.

This also explains why we customised certain icons. Specifically, we chose the icons of the places that we thought were most important, so they would stand out on the map immediately as the point places to pay attention to. We customized a CRS Morrocco relief icon as a representation of our organization in Rabat. The Moroccan Ministry of Health icon was also customized as we plan to affiliate with them as our liaison in Rabat. The only aid station was also picked out. This allows us to plan the aid distribution, and allows others viewing the map to pinpoint our bases immediately, which could help the planning process.

We also wanted to use Google Earth to gain a better idea of the situation on the ground, above and beyond a cartographic representation. This could be useful to us, considering that CRS does not have a substantial experience working in Morocco. Hence, we picked photos, videos and links to websites that could help to provide a more comprehensive picture. We chose photos from past Moroccan Earthquakes that would give an idea of how the situation would look like, away from a mere cartographic representation. For example, we chose a picture of a situation near the coastal areas to illustrate one of the data points. We also chose videos and documentaries of previous Moroccan earthquakes to showcase the effects of past earthquakes, as well as an explanatory video on earthquakes to provide knowledge. A video on CRS was included under the CRS icon to introduce what CRS has done.Website links to CRS and the ministry of health were picked so that people could gain a better understanding of the key actors.

CRS’ target audience

Since Google Earth contains incredibly detailed geographical data, it is probably not the most efficient platform by which to share information with the public. In general, Google Earth map is probably most useful for aid organizations themselves.  Knowledge about specific terrain can, for example, be useful in planning the transportation of supplies and people.  Accordingly, our map includes not only the locations of aid requests, but the locations of certain NGO assets including our own.  It is our hope that we will be able to share this Google Earth map in order to facilitate CRS’ collaborations with other organizations and interoperability among all sources of aid.

CRS and mapping: Ushahidi verses Google Earth

Ushahidi seems most useful for the initial organization of aid requests.  Data can be collected and input to a crowdmap relatively quickly.  We would use Ushahidi at the beginning of a relief effort, to preliminarily gauge where need is concentrated and which resources are most needed. It is also useful during this stage as a sharing platform, which other organizations can refer to as well.

Google Earth is preferable when planning the actual deployment of a response team.  The increased detail of geographical information is invaluable for planning travel routes and determining natural assets and obstacles.  Again, it is not our preferred platform for sharing information with the public because it is too detailed.

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I'm a senior at Tufts Univesity, double majoring from Community Health and History. I'm originally from Pune, India.

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