A Mapping Revolution...

By Leonard Doyle

WOULD you like to know about an innovative high-tech initiative to help vulnerable communities build resilience, ahead of the coming hurricane/typhoon season, by using low-tech solutions? If so, read on.

Its rainy season in many parts of the world and violent storms are already pounding countries least able to cope. Remember when hurricane Sandy blasted its way up the eastern seaboard of the US last year, it seemed to any cable-hopping viewer of TV news that most of the death and destruction was in New York.

Wrong. In fact, more deaths occurred in isolated Caribbean communities, where global TV news outlets do not have correspondents.

Likewise, when Typhoon Bopha ploughed into Mindanao on the other side of the planet in December 2012, the world seemed to brush it off as something that happens in the Philippines with depressing frequency. In fact, Bopha’s death toll pushed the country into the number 1 spot of countries affected by natural disasters in 2012. More worrying, the typhoon blasted ashore in a place where typhoons had not been experienced in the lifetime of most people.

That goes some way towards explaining why 300 local fishermen perished, despite the media putting out a stream of typhoon warnings. But the truth is that poor isolated communities do not have the same access to news and information we have come to expect in our Facebook-suffused world of news feeds and timeline postings, tweets and texts alerts. Not knowing what to expect and needing to put food on the table, the fishermen put to sea and perished.

Two big trends are at work here which cannot be ignored and which are likely to dominate our world for some time to come. The first is that Climate Change is creating violent and unpredictable weather patterns, striking disbelieving communities which are often least prepared for the onslaught. When Bopha struck it turned meandering rivers into raging Amazon-scale torrents, carrying along boulders as big as houses and entire tree trunks and smashing through unsuspecting communities sleeping in flimsy huts.

The second trend is that the poor in developing countries are already bearing the brunt of climate change. These vulnerable people easily end up as migrants living in big city slums, where they are exposed to trafficking and other exploitation. Often uninformed and unprepared when the storms strike and destroy their homes, crops and livelihoods, they too easily end up as casualties of climate change.

It’s estimated that helping adaptation to climate change will cost a whopping $70-$100 billion per year through 2050. This is a big ask in straightened economic times. But rather than get hung up on a tiresome argument over the “sticker shock” or cost of adapting to climate change,  the international community as well as governments are looking more closely at using communication and civic engagement as part of the adaptation process.

Now circle back to the innovative ideas being hatched in the Philippines by IOM to help communities working with elected local leaders take ownership of their destinies during these uncertain and cash-strapped times. Just thinking about the 300 needless deaths of fishermen from Mindanao who put to sea in the midst of a typhoon alert, suggests that climate adaptation is really about awareness raising about risks, local knowledge and good two-way communication for those most at risk. Too often, because of the way humanitarian and development aid works, there can be a gulf of comprehension between initiatives to make countries more resilient and the people suffering and dying due to extreme weather.

Mind The Gap

This is the yawning gap which IOM’s cutting-edge Maptastic initiative seeks to address. Starting with pilot projects in the Philippines, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the plan is to help the youth of exposed communities assess the risks of their localities. They do this by creating simple paper maps or "Walking Papers" showing landslide and flood risk areas. This is an ideal way to work with very isolated or poor communities who may not even have good cell phone connectivity. The cool part is that we skip over the Digital Divide by working in this way. In workshops the young risk mappers will be shown how to upload the information directly onto the web via the wiki map, Openstreetmap.org. In this way very poor communities suddenly become visible. And being visible in a crisis is half way to getting help.

But thats not all. We then help them make risk maps of their communities - get them validated by the local mayor or respected community leaders and print them on big billboards (maps showing flood risks, dangerous rivers, landslide areas and evacuation centers). The expectation is that these youthful volunteers will start to take ownership of the problem, rather than wait to be told what to do by an already overstretched government.

The hope is that university students will sign up as trainers for the project or be sponsored to do so. They will work directly with the communities and if our experiment works, as we hope it will, there will be bright Maptastic communities popping up all over the place before too long. Watch this space, or better still, watch this online presentation of the Maptastic project.

We not only produce banners for communities, but will also produce calendars of the locally produced risk maps. Thus every home should have a calendar on the wall advising where the risky areas are to be avoided during bad weather. 


Leonard Doyle is the head of Online Communications for IOM