UK charity MapAction depends on graphical information systems (GIS) to help make sure relief workers and aid is deployed effectively following a natural disaster like Nepal’s earthquake.

It uses Esri's ArcGIS software to approach disasters strategically, supplying other volunteers with the tools they need to deploy aid, shelter and workers in an efficient manner. 

For example, when a 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit Nepal's capital Kathmandu last month, MapAction’s location intelligence specialist Matt Pennells jumped on a plane armed with a laptop, printer and hard drive. After setting up a tent, Pennells pooled the available data sources often in the form of "a scrap of paper" to create maps that will assist the UN and international charities as they arrive to take over relief efforts.

This includes mapping helicopter landing points, areas where more women are affected – and therefore different aid like sanitary towels are a priority – or where a particular ethnicity or religion may have different needs.

Crucially, mapping data to a minute level assists with any overlapping or waste of aid.

Pennells said: “Aid in the wrong place isn’t aid at all. If we [MapAction] weren’t there it would be luck more than judgement. You might get perfect distribution of aid, but it’s unlikely.”MapAction kiosk in action Nepal Earthquake May 2015

In Nepal specifically, landslides have caused the ground to shift and monsoons have caused saturation in the soil, furthering a vicious circle. MapAction used predictive analysis to help decision makers set up camps based on geographic data as well as government’s epidemic and death data . This way charities can avoid relocating refugee camps in potentially deadly areas where disease is rife. 

“You don’t want to set up a camp in an area typically full of cholera, for example. We’re not just using data for decision making but predictive analysis,” Pennells adds.

One map the charity was able to create “in hours” using Esri’s software, which is supplied to them free of charge, shows the details of every small village in the affected areas surrounding Katmandhu, complete with their area codes. Relief workers are deployed to each of the different villages the size of London postcodes. While it seems a simple task to offer aid to a delegated village, the boundaries are often unclear and names of each ward are often duplicated, causing aid to be sent to the wrong place, or the same place twice. 

MapAction data map of Nepal

For example, “there are about one hundred villages called landslide because there are so many in Nepal”, long-standing volunteer Vickie White explained.

When relief workers return from delivering tents or food, it is checked off and updated on MapAction’s database. By defining the areas and the codes, and adding gender distribution, ethnicity and population information to maps, MapAction helps volunteers deliver the right resources to the right places.

Internet problem

Online maps are a luxury for the organisation as often there is no network to connect to in the aftermath of a flood, or earthquake.

While larger organisations like the International Humanitarian Partnership provides satellite communications and tents during disasters, MapAction “need to be self-sufficient” to ensure it can help others in the first instance of a disaster.

“You can’t expect anything when you get there. We share things with people like PDF and paper and have put a lot of thought into the different ways people like to gather and share information without reliance on the internet,” White said.


MapAction has secured generous support from a number of funders, including the Department for International Development (DFID), Vodafone Foundation and a number of other charitable trusts and major donors. However, the charity has ambitious plans to double its response capacity, so needs to increase its supporter base to underpin this growth. 

As well as providing maps following disasters, MapAction trains local people to analyse information rather than international staff that “will move on”. They also offer training to other charities and national mapping agencies, but need money to simply exist.

“It costs £500 to get jabbed up to go out to a disaster at a drop of a hat.”

GIS vendor Esri UK provides software licenses and brochure printing services for free, but MapAction needs to boost the number of supporters to achieve its ambitious aims for the future.