Tag Archives: MapWindow

Field Guide to Humanitarian Mapping

MapAction just released an excellent mapping guide for the humanitarian community. Authored principally by Naomi Morris, the guide comprises four chapters that outline a range of mapping methods suitable for humanitarian field word.

The first chapter serves as an introduction to humanitarian mapping. Chapter two explains how to make the best use of GPS for data collection. Note that the latest version of Google Earth (v5.0) includes GPS connectivity. The third and fourth chapters provide a user-friendly, hands-on tutorial on how to use Google Earth and MapWindow for humanitarian mapping.

The purpose of this post is to quickly summarize some of the points I found most interesting in the Guide and to offer some suggestions for further research. I do not summarize the tutorials but I do comment on Google Earth and MapWindow might be improved for humanitarian mapping. The end of this post includes a list of recommended links.


John Holmes, the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator and Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs argues that “information is very directly about saving lives. If we take the wrong decisions, make the wrong choices about where we put our money and our effort because our knowledge is poor, we are condemning some of the most deserving to death or destitution.”

I completely agree with this priority-emphasis on information. The purpose of crisis mapping and particularly mobile crisis mapping is for at-risk communities to improve their situational awareness during humanitarian crises. The hope is that relevant and timely information will enable communities to make more informed—and thus better— decisions on how to get out of harm’s way. Recall the purpose of people-centered early warning as defined by the UNISDR:

To empower individuals and communities threatened by hazards to act in sufficient time and in an appropriate manner so as to reduce the possibility of personal injury, loss of life, damage to property and the environment, and loss of livelihoods.

Naomi also cites a Senior Officer from the IFRC who explains the need to map vulnerability and develop baselines prior to a disaster context. “The data for these baselines would include scientific hazard data and the outputs from qualitative assessments at community level.”

This point is worth expanding on. I’ve been meaning to write a blog post specifically on crisis mapping baselines for monitoring and impact evaluation. I hope to do so shortly. In the meantime, the importance of baselines vis-à-vis crisis mapping is a pressing area for further research.

Community Mapping

I really appreciate Naomi’s point that humanitarian mapping does not require sophisticated, proprietary software. As she note, “there has been a steady growth in the number of ‘conventional’ desktop GIS packages available under free or open-source licenses.”

Moreover, maps can also be “created using other tools including a pad of graph paper and a pencil, or even an Excel spreadsheet.” Indeed, we should always “consider whether ‘low/no tech’ methods [can meet our] needs before investing time in computer-based methods.”

To this end, Naomi includes a section in her introduction on community-level mapping techniques.

Community-level mapping is a powerful method for disaster risk mitigation and preparedness.  It is driven by input from the beneficiary participants; this benefits the plan output with a broader overview of the area, while allowing the community to be involved. Local people can, using simple maps that they have created, quickly see and analyse important patterns in the risks they face.

Again, Naomi emphasizes the fact that computer-based tools are not essential for crisis mapping at the community level. Instead, we can “compile sketches, data from assessments and notes into representations of the region [we] are looking at using tools like pen and paper.”

To be sure, “in a situation with no time or resources, a map can be enough to help to identify the most at-risk areas of a settlement, and to mark the location of valuable services […].”


I highly recommend following the applied  Google Earth and MapWindow tutorials in the Guide. They are written in a very accessible way that make it easy to follow or use as a teaching tool, so many thanks to Naomi for putting this together.

I would have liked to see more on crisis mapping analysis in the Guide but the fact of the matter is that Google Earth and MapWindow provide little in the way of simple features for applied geostatistics. So this is not a criticism of the report or the author.


Patrick Philippe Meier