10 years on, UNOSAT Humanitarian Rapid Mapping is a leading standard

February 2013, Geneva, Switzerland - In 2003 UNOSAT initiated tests of the first version of its Humanitarian Rapid Mapping service, dedicated to supporting humanitarian decision making and ground operations by increasing situational awareness with just-in-time analysis of disaster and crisis areas using optical and radar satellite data. After the first three experimental tests in 2003, the “activations” of this new service have grown each year, peaking at 47 per year in 2007.

In 2012 UNOSAT was activated by the humanitarian community 35 times, of which 12 times by OCHA alone. In reflecting the security challenges of today’s international reality, 54% of these activations referred to complex emergencies and conflict situations. Floods and storms, which are responsible for most disasters on the planet, prompted 31% of the activations. A new type of requestor emerged in 2012: the UN Department for Peace Keeping Operations (DPKO), with 6% of UNOSAT’s rapid mapping activation requests.

10 years after its first “activation”, UNOSAT humanitarian rapid mapping is the gold standard not only in the UN but also in the competitive circle of GIS, earning positive comments such as this reaction from a UNICEF official, “By far your maps are the most dynamic and informative. I am getting calls from the field to convey their appreciation for the work of UNOSAT in supporting this emergency, and some senior staff love it.”

This success is the result of serious professional research and consitent trial-and-error work done with the participation of experts from UN humanitarian  agencies and NGOs worldwide. Very soon into the development of the initial idea it became apparent that, for it to be useful, the service had to be operational 24 hours a day, each day of the year, rely on standards and operational procedures still unwritten at that time, and be free of charge for humanitarian operators, who have no time and no dedicated budget to pay for such support service.

The idea of an accountable technology-based service at the service of the UN family was based on the recognition that at that time very few agencies of the UN system were familiar with GIS, and even less with satellite derived analysis, while it was clear that there were large benefits to be gained through the use of this technology in humanitarian action. While geospatial technologies are unanimously declared useful for the role and mandates of the UN and its agencies, the fact remains that only a dedicated permanent centre of excellence like UNOSAT is able to guarantee that optimal solutions are readily available, that new technologies are impartially tested, and new products evaluated and finally turned into tools especially crafted for the needs of a large number of UN entities whose mandates are not in developing technology applications, but rather in coordination, policy, and aid delivery in the field.   

What seems natural in 2013 was not so obvious in outset; turning satellite technology into solutions capable of making a tangible difference in the work of humanitarian experts was a relentless job and one for which no precedents existed and no examples to follow were available. Since the beginning the relationship with the users in the field has always been a centrepiece of the UNOSAT strategy. This strong connection to the reality on the ground was used consciously to avoid losing perspective and becoming entrapped in the technology itself, losing sight of what needs to be done in favour of what technology can do.

Because UNOSAT experts are also experienced international and field-workers, they know that each crisis is different, and that what works in one place may not work in another, especially during natural disasters and conflict. Early in the process, encouraging feedback started to come in. In the words of a US Red Cross staff, for example, “This data is fantastic, it’s precisely what we were looking for. We can’t thank you enough for your timely response and accurate data.”

To be agile and effective, the service is free of charge for UN agencies and main humanitarian actors. This is possible thanks to the engagement of a small number of motivated donors who see the value of bringing the objectivity of satellite assessment to humanitarian affairs and the advantage of  having a centre of excellence specialising in this technology as a common benefit for all parties concerned. Thanks to these donors, the UNOSAT team was able to make the leap from ad-hoc high-quality products to a fully reliable service in less than three years. By 2007, UNOSAT was able to respond to 100% of requests for activations emanating from the humanitarian community at large.

Nearly each week a new natural disaster causes humanitarian consequences to which the UN is called to respond. Complex emergencies and conflicts require impact assessment and humanitarian coordination over periods of months. Areas of difficult and dangerous access for the UN become populated with displaced or threatened groups that UN agencies try to estimate and assist. Unforeseen situations arise about which the UN needs objective and rapid information. The information to support these processes has to be reliable and verified and sometimes the only source of objective information comes from sensors and cameras aboard satellites. UNOSAT makes sure that the UN can obtain this data and can interpret it according to the best professional standards available while applying the objective and impartial stance of the Organization.

The vocation of UNOSAT is rooted in its accountability to the values and mission of the United Nations. At the height of the Libya crisis, when no UN agency had access to the country and those in need of relief were trapped within its borders, a WFP Officer wrote to his colleagues, “Do you guys get these emails from UNITAR? They have a load of sat maps on their website for Benghazi and Tripoli town, and also for the border crossings in Tunisia and Egypt. We should use the town maps for Benghazi and Tripoli as base layers to plot logs info on when we eventually get in there.”

All long its existence UNOSAT has shared the work of its analysts and cartographers with all UN agencies and as publicly as possible, reaching out to member states of the UN and regional organizations alike. The Programme has a learning and capacity development function that has shared UNOSAT rapid mapping methodology for years with hundreds of experts in dozens of countries as well as students of various Universities.

All UNOSAT achievements have one element in common: the use of innovation and technology by expert staff in a mix prepared with the sole intent of solving practical problems and providing a piece of missing information that is needed by UN colleagues at headquarters and in the field so that they can do better what is expected from them. This is best described in the own words of the users, “I thought I’d pass along a big ‘thank you’ from the USAID Mission in Haiti. When Hurricane Sandy passed over the Caribbean the Mission here was desperately looking for information that would help them with a response. The UNOSAT website included not only beautiful maps, but the data as well. The GIS specialist in the Mission was quickly able to plug response teams into your maps and that information greatly facilitated decision making.”

This is not to forget the importance of helping national entities in member states. In several instances UNOSAT is rewarded by positive feedback from government officials. During the important floods that affected Pakistan in 2011, for example, one government officer involved in the response sent this message: “We in Pakistan greatly appreciate the maps being posted by UNOSAT. These are being used by many for planning relief activities and to assist the effected people. Please keep up the noble work which you are doing and be blessed by the prayers of the sufferers.”


Images by UNITAR/UNOSAT:

1 - The evolution of the number of activations of UNOSAT Rapid Mapping Service since 2003
2 - Activations of the service by requesting agency
3 - UNOSAT experts deploy to crisis areas whenever necessary.
4 - Very high-resolution imagery like this one is used frequently in conflict crises

5 - Working to support national crisis response is a strong component of UNOSAT work.