Q&A: More than just the 'map guy' — advancing geospatial knowledge in Vanuatu

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People in Vanuatu look at a village map showing places to find shelter during cyclones or tsunamis. Photo by: EC / ECHO / Mathias Eick / CC BY-SA

CANBERRA — As a geospatial scientist supporting emergency response in Vanuatu, Ian Huri has become more than just “the map guy” due to the combined crises of Tropical Cyclone Harold and concerns of a coronavirus outbreak.

As part of the technical backstopping provided by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research's Operational Satellite Applications Programme, or UNITAR-UNOSAT, he assists the country’s National Emergency Operations Centre — managed by the Vanuatu National Disaster Management Office — to help key stakeholders in government understand how spatial science and technology can improve policy decisions and response.

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“The best thing about my work is that I get to see the expression on the face of people when they really get to understand GIS,” said Huri, referring to geospatial information systems. “Whenever you mention GIS, people first think of it as just maps. But once you add the flavor of remote sensing and analysis of land use, land cover, and changes over time, you can see on their faces that the lightbulb goes on.”

Through the work done during these two disasters, Huri is hopeful that the prominence of GIS will lead to greater investment in centralized data and improved capability. And he discussed with Devex the opportunities that he is keen to leverage.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What has been your role in supporting the response to TC Harold, and what have been the challenges you have faced?

My assistance was required at the emergency operations center to instruct staff from different government departments. My expertise was also used to provide assistance for maps and analysis to support logistics and planning.

There were quite a few gaps. We were lacking some base maps, including boundaries of areas that were affected by the cyclone. The challenge was also getting the data in. A rapid response team went out and collected data immediately after the cyclone. With this data, however, the coverage was not well represented because of the way it was collected.

I was able to use baseline data from the Vanuatu National Statistics Office that provided population, buildings, health facilities, as well as population in councils, provinces, and islands. We even created a wind intensity map based on the path predicted by the tropical cyclone warning. So our response was initially based on this data — maps were broken into different priority areas to identify where assistance was needed.

The good thing was that everyone within the operations center, as well as the authorities, had an idea of what GIS was — they’d heard of the terms “GIS” or “geospatial analysis.” But it was not necessarily made clear to them what was involved. When I was placed in the national operations center, it helped to build this awareness.

One of the challenges was the importance of being accurate with the data and how spatial data was collected. This was a challenge, as everyone was rushing to the affected areas. It is important to educate on collecting spatial data to make sure what comes back is useful. That is an area I think is lacking and we need to work on.

What do you think needs to be prioritized to support better decision-making through spatial data in Vanuatu?

We are still in the open-source software arena and have not gone into and licensed software. We don’t have centralized geodatabase to house national spatial data. We are all housed in different agencies — the National Disaster Management Office, Meteorology, Lands, and more. There is a need to get all of this together and enable people to see how geospatial data housed in one database or hub can be shared.

When TC Harold hit, we needed to run around and get data from different sources. I believe if we address this, we can have a database management system to support the Vanuatu government.

“The best thing about my work is that I get to see the expression on the face of people when they really get to understand GIS.”

— Ian Huri, geospatial scientist, UNITAR-UNOSAT

In terms of the data we have, we have boundaries on provinces, islands, and areas councils. Within the area councils, we have villages as well, including coordinates of villages. But the attributes for that village that can break down the population into different [demographic] groups — we haven’t gone down to that level yet. This is being addressed at the moment.

How is your work encouraging a discussion of expanding the use of spatial systems to support broader policy and preparedness?

I see these two events, TC Harold and COVID-19, as working hand in hand to promote this space. But before I moved to be based at the National Emergency Operations Centre, I was housed with the Vanuatu Meteorological and Geohazards Department, which is also a beneficiary of climate and disaster-risk projects. We have been having informal discussions with the manager of the climate division, and they are aware of how sustaining this project can support their projects. So they see the advantage in extending this work.

While carrying out the work within the National Disaster Management Office, the recovery operations center has been activated and is housed within the prime minister’s office. So there is the option to assist them — and extending GIS work in this space has grown and is getting more attention.

What is your personal goal to advocating, teaching, and progressing work in this space?

I will be involved in more training, especially to the government and private sector, which will help build up the remote-sensing and GIS community in Vanuatu. We have a base of GIS users that is in existence, and we have a growing number of interested users. We still need to grow this more.

How I see myself in growing this community is being part of whatever is being organized by the government — whether this is public awareness training or workshops, I will be there.

Update, June 16, 2020: This article has been updated to indicate that Ian Huri works for UNITAR-UNOSAT and is involved with Vanuatu’s emergency operations and coordination as part of the technical backstopping provided by UNITAR-UNOSAT.

Visit the Data for Development series for more coverage on practical ways that satellite data can be harnessed to support the work of development professionals and aid workers. You can join the conversation using the hashtag #DataForDev.

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.