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news | July 15, 2014 | Jordan | Emergency

How do geographic information systems inform humanitarian action?

From the air it looks like a big, sprawling urban area; row after row of tents and containers line sandy roads that are dotted with power lines and in the distance you can see football fields and markets. This area spanning over 8km2 is Al Za’atari Refugee Camp, one of the largest refugee camps in the world. Using innovative surveying techniques with Geographic Information Systems technology, Al Za’atari is also the most mapped refugee camps in the world.

Inside the camp, refugees have tried to create homes in caravans and large canvas tents. Many have already spent a few years here, and hundreds continue to arrive each week.

Al Za’atari opened in July 2012 and was originally meant to host 20,000 people. Its population now stands at 86,000, having peaked at 120,000 in May 2013, and is one of the largest urban areas in Jordan. The humanitarian aid effort is an immense challenge; every refugee needs shelter, food and water, access to sanitary and cooking facilities, medical aid, education and a safe environment. The winters are cold, wet and even snowy in Jordan, and the summers are hot, dusty and dry.

Orientation in the desert

REACH is a joint initiative – by IMPACT Initiatives, the UN Operational Satellite Applications Programme (UNOSAT) and ACTED. REACH was created in 2010 to facilitate the development of information tools and products that enhance the capacity of aid actors to make evidence-based decisions in emergency, recovery and development contexts. All REACH activities are conducted in support to, and within the framework of, inter-agency aid coordination mechanisms. In 2013 an addressing system was established in the camp to facilitate access to services and create a better sense of familiarity for refugees. Maps delivered upon request also help humanitarian organizations orientate themselves within this area.

Nicknamed ‘Les Champs-Elysees’, the main market street stirs with the smell of falafel and spices, burning hot sun and sand blowing into every corner. The street is bursting with shops, stalls, cafes, bakeries, cars, carts and children. The market is one of the oldest areas in the camp and represents an aspect of daily life they used to experience back in Syria; a “home away from home”.

To contribute to a sense of familiarity within the camp, the local Arabic names of areas are used on REACH maps and adjusts symbols to be more recognizable to the refugee population. It also means that humanitarian organizations using REACH maps for their operations see the camp in the same way and using the same language that refugees do.

Creating a map that is easy to read and useful for refugees, however, has proven to be a challenging task. Refugees are regularly consulted to ensure that appropriate and useful symbols are included that pertain to their daily activities and needs within the camp. REACH has found that the most important symbol is the Qiblah, the direction to Mecca. Since Geographic Information System (GIS) software libraries did not have a record of this symbol, REACH created one.

The first map of Al Za’atari was published in the autumn of 2012 using UNOSAT satellite images and field observations to define and record the outlines of buildings and roads using GIS software. Using the raw satellite map, REACH field-based staff noted down the position and shape of hospitals, schools, sanitary facilities, kitchens and headquarters of humanitarian organisations as well as speaking with refugees to collect the local names of places and streets. Smartphones equipped with GPS were used to record the exact locations of identified buildings that could then be collated with satellite images. With all these layers overlaid, the Al Za’atari static map has become a powerful and popular tool for both the humanitarian community and refugee population in the camp.

Success through simplicity

Why smartphones? In a refugee camp, nothing is constant. Needs and numbers are changing all the time. The inhabitants of Al Za’atari are dynamic and resourceful; many households now have TVs and washing machines, and on every corner there are cafes and hairdressers. Recording the numbers of such developments is crucial to manage electricity and water supplies well. By October of 2013, (18 months after the opening of the camp), over 75% of households were connected to electricity.

To respond to the fast pace of the camp, information must be gathered quickly, accurately, and in a cost-effective manner. Smartphones equipped with the open-source software Open Data Kit (ODK) are a multi-purpose solution that records locations, and functions as a survey tool to gather information on the state of buildings, monitor project activities and evaluate refugees’ needs. On-site data can be gathered about small businesses, household items, as well as the make-up of Al Za’atari itself: Household size and movements, etc.

For ACTED’s Repair and Maintenance team, REACH’s mapping systems have helped better planning and management of repairs to sanitation facilities; ‘You just take one look at the map and you know everything, the location, the type of facility and its surroundings. REACH also helps us by mapping monthly all the repair and maintenance activities in the camp so we can clearly report to our partners, donors, government and beneficiaries.’ – Jakub, Repair and Maintenance Manager

Data and locations gathered by staff is sent to a REACH server where it can be processed in ArcMap, a programme that analyses and prepares maps with the most recent information and developing conditions. This informs decision making and response. In November 2013, data was collected on the number of shelters and numbers of people in each household. This data allowed planning for the exact number of caravans that were needed, and the actual figure was lower than predicted by almost 3,000. The costs saved by this information, and information gathered in the future, are important to providing much-needed funding to respond to other needs.

Cooperative aid for people

Data and maps of the camp are constantly updated, however, there is also a human face to the mapping process. GIS officers cooperate closely with UN agencies and other aid organisations operating in the camp to ensure that maps are able to respond to their information needs. REACH maps are used to better understand the locations of important buildings, services and infrastructure such as new schools, roads or health centres and inform decisions that directly impact those living in the camp.

Information about Al Za’atari collected by REACH is available on the open geo-portal called OpenStreetMap (OSM). Due to the sensitive nature of some information not all of it is available publicly, though what is available is shared in a free map that can be downloaded. Using OSM means that spatial data can be immediately available and therefore more effective in crisis situations when there is little time to construct more complex software. As part of its commitment to improve information management in emergencies, REACH has created an OSM wiki-page to explain how the data is structured and adjusted to the software so other humanitarian organisations can replicate the method elsewhere around the world. The REACH team in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq is now following the Al Za’atari model for refugee camp mapping.

Continuing innovation

Such broad usage of GIS in a refugee camp is not a standard practice. Using GIS itself is often limited by a lack of funding as employing and training staff can be costly. There are logistical challenges too, as activities can be limited by lack of electricity and internet access. Still, pioneering mapping projects such as those undertaken by REACH in Al Za’atari have proven to help inform more effective and targeted humanitarian action. GIS is not only useful for quickly gathering and delivering data in crisis situations, but also in the recovery phase and to support regional development.

For more information, please visit: You can also write to REACH global office in Geneva directly at: and follow @REACH_info.