In March 2014, MSF-Switzerland deployed a dedicated Geographic Information Systems (GIS) officer to Guinea in response to the Ebola outbreak in the south of the country. In support of the epidemiological team, the GIS officer was charged with producing general overview maps, as well as topical maps that supported different aspects of the operation.
During the eight weeks of his mission, the GIS officer produced 109 maps for this previously very poorly mapped area. The maps included basic orientation maps that showed roads, landmarks and villages but also specialised maps that visualized population density or the spread of the disease.
Both field and headquarters staff interviewed for this case study emphasized that having a dedicated GIS officer in the field was a major asset that had a significant positive impact on the operation.
Universally, interviewees identified two outputs as the most useful:
Localization: With the help of a newly created database and subsequently produced maps, the GIS officer was able to pinpoint the exact location of villages and identify villages that had the same name but were in different parts of the prefecture. Based on this information, MSF programme staff were able to respond to the outbreak faster, in a more targeted way and with fewer resources.
Visualization: A weekly mapping of confirmed and suspected Ebola cases helped translate the progression of the epidemic from technical data into an easy-to-grasp map. As a result, staff at all levels had a better understanding of the emergency.
The interviews also highlighted the fact that most MSF staff know very little about GIS in general, let alone how a GIS officer could support them. The newly formed GIS unit at the Operational Centre Geneva (OCG) needs to do more to educate staff at headquarters and in the field about how GIS can support operations. For field deployments, this means that GIS officers need to be service-oriented self-starters because only very few staff will know how to make best use of his or her skills.
To map the areas of operation in a reasonable amount of time, the GIS unit - in support of the field officer - crowdsourced tasks that were neither confidential nor sensitive. As a result, a substantial number of overview maps were created with the help of close to 250 online volunteers. These volunteers helped to map previously unmapped cities and roads within a few days, and at a granular level, mapping individual buildings. These overview maps then became the foundation of many maps that the GIS officer created for the response. While the cooperation with the online volunteers was overall very positive, it also showed that coordination as well as expectation management can be improved.
Given the universally positive feedback about the GIS officer’s deployment, it is recommended that headquarters makes GIS officers available to field offices, where direct contact with field operations can bring clear benefits, and where close and timely monitoring of the spread of an epidemic is essential.