State developing online humanitarian relief maps

More detailed application to improve aid to disaster victims

People in Pangandaran, Indonesia, lived in quiet obscurity until around 3:40 p.m. on July 17, when an offshore earthquake sent a deadly, nine-foot tsunami to Java's coast. Within hours, humanitarian organizations mobilized to bring help to Pangandaran and other coastal towns, where the tsunami killed some 500 people.

The State Department's Humanitarian Assistance Unit jumped in to help by crafting a detailed and carefully annotated static map precisely describing the earthquake fault line as well as infrastructure that could help speed aid to Pangandaran.

Soon, when natural or manmade disasters strike, State will move from deploying a static map, while useful to some degree, to providing a more dynamic, electronic one that will feature real-time updates, officials said. The agency will launch an online version of its humanitarian geospatial products that will furnish aid organizations with information continually updated via links to federal databases.

State's fledgling online geographic information system will automate its maps of earthquakes, genocide and other humanitarian disasters.

The new GIS comprises the use of information flowing in many cases from the intelligence community, a group of 16 spy agencies not known for their willingness to volunteer data to outside organizations.

Under the geospatial project, known as Visualized Information/Synthesized Temporal Analysis, State officials hope to weave together chronological, geographic, tabular and textual information in a convenient format, officials said.

The current stage of the project consists of producing static maps that draw together the various types of information'which in GIS, appear as layers of data. The VISTA upgrade will furnish an online product that humanitarian-relief planners can use to target their aid projects.

One State official, who requested anonymity, said the VISTA project 'is in process right now. We are developing a prototype that will be a Web-based visualization and analysis tool.'

The official said that project designers expect to use an online visualization tool along the lines of those offered by ESRI of Redlands, Calif. He added that the VISTA project also likely would use government off-the-shelf software provided by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

'We expect to begin the development and design phase this month,' the official said.
State plans to operate a prototype of the online version of VISTA from October to January 2007, the official said.

'It's going to be database driven,' he added. 'As you update the database, the visualizations will change.'

State plans to roll out the prototype online version of VISTA at first to federal agencies involved in relief work such as the Agency for International Development as well as selected charities and private relief agencies.

'We are keeping it pretty simple,' the official said. 'It is not going to have the full functionality of a [National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency] product.'

The humanitarian unit has been producing static versions of the annotated maps as an early version of the VISTA project for about two years, the official said.

'Now we are going to take that product and upgrade it so that users will be able to query it, manipulate the information and hyperlink to textual information,' the official said.

State has not hired a contractor to provide support for the VISTA project, but rather has developed it using its own resources, the official said.

The unit already provides unclassified geospatial information drawn from the NGA resources to various humanitarian agencies, including those sponsored by the United Nations.

State has used NGA data to produce maps of recent crises including:
  • The conflict in Sudan's Darfur region, where Janjaweed militias have massacred thousands of men, women and children in genocidal raids.

  • Conflict in Northern Uganda and Eastern Congo, where adherents and conscripts of the 'Lord's Resistance Army' operate, and other armed factions clash.

  • The May 26 earthquake off the coast of Java that killed more than 5,700 people and left about 1.5 million homeless.


In the case of the Java earthquake, State assembled federal and private information in an annotated map of the temblor's impact, including the resulting tsunami, and generated a memorandum explaining the consequences of the disaster.

NGA maps tend to include strikingly abundant detail, even of very remote regions, that describes the infrastructure such as airstrips and roads that help humanitarian organizations mount disaster relief projects.

The maps provided to humanitarian organizations pinpoint the locations and intensity of armed clashes in troubled regions and in many cases describe the extent of fighting as well as the casualties resulting from firefights.

State's humanitarian GIS organization serves as a focal point for various organizations active in the field of applying geospatial intelligence to relief projects. This is partly because State has access to a wealth of unclassified information that the intelligence community generates that can be applied to the problem.

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