GIS, Mapping, Volunteering

Becoming a MapAction Volunteer

When the call came for Caribbean volunteers to apply to MapAction, I was keen to sign up. Having followed the work of this organization and the amazing group of persons who work as volunteers, I saw this as an awesome opportunity for me to contribute to the work of saving lives.

MapAction is a non-governmental, UK based charity, that specializes in providing mapping for humanitarian emergencies. MapAction has the ability to quickly gather crucial data and convey it visually, in the form of maps.  With MapAction’s support, aid agencies, governments and local partners, are in a better position to make informed decisions to deliver aid and emergency supplies to the right place, quickly.

Living in Montserrat, with an active volcano and being privy to how devastating disasters can be, I was grateful for the prospect of being able to use my skills in geospatial technologies to contribute to humanitarian efforts during a disaster. My mind quickly raced back to the impact Hurricanes Irma and Maria had on my neighboring Caribbean Islands, in 2017. I wanted to be in a better position to offer assistance if a situation like that – God-forbid – presented itself again.

I therefore, submitted an application to the organization and not very long after, I was greeted with an email inviting me to an “Assessment Day“. Needless to say, I was very happy to advance to the next stage.

Assessment Day turned out to be very interesting. Surprisingly, during the introductory session, I was reintroduced to the Head of the MapAction Caribbean Section, who reminded me, that we met, while he visited Montserrat in another capacity several years before. Moreover, the gentleman who is the Preparedness Lead for MapAction worked in Montserrat briefly on a project back in the early 2000s. I found it to be very fascinating how unsuspectingly our paths crossed again! In addition, hearing the testimony of a fellow MapAction Volunteer, sort of sealed the deal for me. He explained what being a volunteer all entailed and how my skills can contribute to saving lives.

Overall, this interview process was detailed enough to ensure that I was a good fit for MapAction. Amongst other skills, the panel assessed team spirit, leadership potential and the knowledge and application of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) tools and software.

Receiving another email shortly after assessment day, entitled, “MapAction Caribbean Section – Interview Outcome”, I nervously, but anxiously opened it. The words that bounced from my computer screen, read:

Congratulations, you have been selected to join our Caribbean Team! 

This was awesome news and I am absolutely thrilled to be apart of the MapAction family and being able to contribute to society in this capacity.

I look forward to sharing more about the work of MapAction and my experiences in future blogs.

Learn more about the work of MapAction at www.mapaction.org.

Lavern Rogers-Ryan is a geospatial consultant specializing in disaster risk management and recovery. She is currently head of the GIS Centre within the Government of Montserrat. Learn more about geospatial services in disasters at www.lavernrogersryan.com.

GIS, Imagery, Mapping

What is GIS?

Learning to read, my youngest daughter looked at her dad proudly as she shouted out the letters on his T-Shirt…“G I S!”. Then she looked at me inquisitively and said “Mommy, G I S?” I responded in the affirmative, “Yes sweetie, G I S!”

So, what is GIS?

This picture which I captured on my return flight to Montserrat, overlooking Davy Hill and Little Bay will help me to explain.

View overlooking Davy Hill and Little Bay, Montserrat

At first glance, buildings, roads, vegetation, hills and the ocean can be seen in my picture. GIS, which stands for Geographic Information System allows you to capture, store, manipulate, analyse, manage and present, this type of geographic data.

The unique aspect about GIS is that it allows you to store additional information, called “attributes”, about each feature. For example, attributes of a road may include its name, type, whether primary or secondary and its length. Similarly, attributes of a building, may include the owner’s name, a category of use, whether it is residential or commercial, the material that the building is made from, for example, wood or concrete, the roof type and also the number of floors.

Attribute data can be obtained from a number of sources or data can be captured specifically for your application. Spatial data can be obtained from satellite images, aerial photographs, scanned maps and similar resources. Essentially, any format of a geographical image with location or co-ordinate points can be used as spatial data.

The combination of spatial and attribute data gives GIS the capability of providing answers to complex questions. It is undeniably, the partnership of these two data types that enables GIS to be such an effective problem solving tool through spatial analysis.

To visualize large amounts of information interactively is one of the most attractive and useful capabilities of GIS. To do this, data is extracted and stored in the form of “layers”.  The image below captures graphically how these layers relate to the real world.

                           Representation of layers in GIS

GIS utilizes two primary data types: vector and raster. Vector data is represented as either points, lines, or polygons. So let’s go back to my picture of Montserrat. In that picture, the location of a particular facility, such as the new location of ZJB Radio in Davy Hill can be captured as a point, other buildings can be represented as polygons, along with the entire settlement area of Davy Hill and the roads can be captured as lines.

Contrastingly, raster data is best suited for information that does not have hard boundaries or locations. So again, let’s revert to the picture which I took. The hills and valleys which you can see are best represented as elevation or terrain modelling surfaces. Raster data is usually used to represent this type of data in a GIS. Data in rasters are viewed as a series of grid cells where each cell has a value representing the feature being observed. 

Unlike, traditional paper maps, GIS is fully interactive. It allows you to add new fields of data,  change the color scheme or form of the map, add text and move symbols around. GIS displays allows you to zoom and pan which offers new perspectives and new insights. These and a host of other capabilities give a user tremendous flexibility and power.

GIS is more than just software. It is a system where trained people and methods are combined with geospatial tools, to enable spatial analysis, manage large datasets, and display information in a graphical form.

GIS Day is celebrated annually, read more in my previous blog: https://www.lavernrogersryan.com/celebrate-gis-day-annually-and-dont-forget-the-cake/.

Lavern Rogers-Ryan is a geospatial consultant specializing in disaster risk management and recovery. She is currently head of the GIS Centre within the Government of Montserrat. Learn more about geospatial services in disasters at www.lavernrogersryan.com.