We look at how charities are using digital mapping to support communities and improve joint responses to emergencies
Charities are increasingly turning to digital mapping to work together. Their goal is to improve information sharing and target the communities most in need of support.
Digital collaborative map building charities can swiftly and efficiently react to emergencies and tackle emerging trends in local areas, such as isolation and food poverty.
The COVID-19 crisis escalated the use of digital mapping technology in the UK and it looks set to continue being developed for years to come, as charities aim to improve their efficiency in supporting communities.
Digital mapping involves the collection of a range of data that is formatted into digital and online maps of local areas.
Its origins lie in helping cartographers give the most accurate and up-to-date information. This includes mapping the latest transport links, building work, and local environment. Digital maps can be shared among organisations, who can all contribute data to support each other’s work.
Through GPS technology and other data, such as weather and traffic updates, a digital map can offer a real time picture of a local area.
Digital maps are also a highly visual way of presenting data. Whether in a traditional 2-D format or in 3-D, digital maps offer a more interesting look at data and characteristics of a local area.
The array of data that can be inputted into a map is vast, from weather information and soil erosion to social, health, and economic information around local populations.
Interactivity is a key positive, with often dozens of organisations involved, inputting data to form the map.
Social, health, and economic information of local populations on digital maps can be especially useful for charities supporting vulnerable people. These help to target areas of greatest need.
The interactive nature of digital mapping, which uses cloud-based software, also helps eradicate doubling up on work. This makes charities’ joint response more efficient.
In addition, the availability of digital maps on mobile devices and tablets means charity workers can access the up-to-date information on the ground, to reach communities quickly.
The Voluntary and Community Sector Emergencies Partnership (VCSEP) is a network of 250 organisations, set up following the Grenfell Tower disaster in London and the terrorist attacks in London and Manchester in 2017.
It is among groups of charities already using digital mapping to improve support, most recently around the UK’s recovery from the COVID-19 crisis.
The cloud-based digital mapping technology VCSEP uses is Esri GIS (Geographic Information System). During the pandemic this technology was used to create maps for charities to meet requests for testing, vaccinations, as well as around food and clothing shortages in local communities.
Also included in VCSEP’s digital mapping is an online Vulnerability Index map, which visualises multiple data sets around clinical vulnerability, digital exclusion and disadvantage.
“Previously, local knowledge and relationships were heavily relied upon but now we have the spatial data to spot geographic trends and make more informed decisions to supplement vital, local knowledge,” said VCSEP Senior Information Manager Alexie Schwab.
“This is just the beginning – there is a huge appetite within the VCSEP to find new ways of visualising and working with data to support a joined-up emergency response."
The British Red Cross is also involved in VCSEP. “[We are] proud of [our] role providing GIS and Information Management expertise globally to help those in crisis,” said the charity’s Director of Digital Adam Rowlands.
International aid and disaster relief charities are finding digital mapping particularly useful to gather the latest information on inaccessible locations, from local road plans to water supplies.
Among digital mapping tools used is MapSwipe, an open-source mobile app used by aid workers and volunteers to help them better support communities in need.
MapSwipe data includes changes in local areas such as new buildings and roads, population size, health, and climate change. Using specific information requested by charities, maps can be created to improve local support. This app also enables charities involved to track the impact of their work.
Digital mapping can be particularly useful for aid workers in extremely remote areas, to help add buildings and settlements to blank spaces on existing maps. One such scheme is Crowd2Map, which has been mapping rural Tanzania via open source digital mapping tool OpenStreetMap since 2015.
This was launched by Tanzania Development Trust Chair Janet Chapman and has been invaluable in helping the charity swiftly react to reports of girls at risk of FGM. The initiative has helped save 3,000 girls from FGM since it launched.