Participants of the advanced training on earth observation and geospatial information technology for climate resilience in Port Vila, Vanuatu. Photo by: UNITAR

When Cyclone Harold lashed through Vanuatu in early April 2020, many buildings were destroyed as the tropical storm left a trail of destruction in its wake. Some 90% of those on Pentecost Island alone were damaged, while around half the Pacific nation’s population were left in need of assistance.

As small island developing states face an increasing incidence of such events through climate change, it again highlights the urgent need for having the capacity to forecast and react to disasters through the use of geographic information system technologies. This is no less true in Vanuatu, which has been cited as having the highest disaster risk worldwide.

Coordinated training in remote sensing for both academia and national government members is seen as key to aid sustainability and develop a core of in-country experts who can transfer knowledge long-term. Recognizing this need, UNOSAT, the United Nations Operational Satellite Applications Programme of the U.N. Institute for Training and Research, has been running training since 2019 in collaboration with The University of the South Pacific — or USP — in Vanuatu, Fiji, and the Solomon Islands within its IPP CommonSensing project.

“The key is making informed decisions, and this young generation can pick up technology much faster than any of us. There’s a huge demand because many agencies need the staff with this skill set.”

— Khaled Mashfiq, regional liaison for the Asia-Pacific region, UNOSAT

From the academia side, Krishna Kotra, science program coordinator at USP’s Emalus campus in Vanuatu, said this type of training encourages collaboration between those involved and engages students through two-way interaction, field activities, and exposure to high-level delegates, helping motivate them to take up higher-level study.

“To me, this training has given them an eye-opener to see the real-time damage,” Kotra said. “This kind of collaborative approach will make sure that national capacity building is done in so many fields.”

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Launched in 2015, the U.K. Space Agency’s International Partnership Programme is a £152 million ($196 million) multiyear program that uses U.K. organizations’ space knowledge, expertise, and capabilities to provide a sustainable, economic, or societal benefit to low- and middle-income countries.

It is funded by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy’s Global Challenges Research Fund, a £1.5 billion fund that forms part of the U.K. government’s official development assistance commitment.

Skills development

Building on initial sessions in 2019, UNOSAT ran more advanced five-day training in September 2020 attended by 43 representatives from ministries and academia in USP’s GIS labs in Port Vila and Suva, the capitals of Vanuatu and Fiji. Amid COVID-19 restrictions, the labs operated at 50% capacity, with pre-recorded sessions supported by in-country experts.

More recently a wider cohort of more than 20 students in Vanuatu was involved in basic training on GIS and remote sensing in December 2020.

Merianne Tabius, a recent USP graduate and current staff member at the university in Vanuatu who attended the training and helped coordinate the later sessions, said she learned a large amount that she hopes will help with climate change-related career development.

“It will help a lot because from this training we’ve learned how to do land assessments so we can figure out how things have changed over time,” she said. Through combining population data with existing cyclone information, she added, “we can also follow cyclone tracks and predict whether cyclones will damage particular areas the most.”

GIS tools used in the training have included Epicollect for gathering data in the field — a platform that Tabius explained allows surveys to be created on an area of interest, and related data and pictures to be gathered, uploaded, and analyzed later. She highlighted that as the application is downloadable to a phone, it overcomes the issue of potential lack of internet access during data collection.

Aside from this, students and ministry members have been trained in open-source geospatial data platform QGIS, and use of the EO Browser and free open data sources, as well as the creation and use of geospatial data for land cover monitoring, rapid response mapping, and post-disaster damage assessment.

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Tabius explained that the training and chance to use these tools in the field had really improved her understanding. “In the past, I used Google Maps, but I didn’t know that there are actually free maps out there that show the history of different environments so that you can compare and see what has changed in the past,” she said.

Ministry input and information-sharing

At a ministry and national organization level, meanwhile, the advanced CommonSensing training has already been harnessed for real-life situations. Attendees from Fiji’s Bureau of Statistics and National Disaster Management Office have been using the additional skills and knowledge to aid damage assessment and evaluate the impact on separate communities from Cyclone Yasa, which hit Fiji this past December.

Neil Livingstone Malosu, a climatologist at the Vanuatu Meteorology and Geo-Hazards Department in the country’s Ministry of Climate Change, said that tools such as the EO Browser would help with his department’s research and aid a more rapid response in disaster situations, enhancing the ability to work with communities to build resilience. “We can visualize the extent of damages from different natural hazards on different projected resolutions … and make comparisons,” he said.

Furthermore, he said, training that enables communication within and between ministries and academia is highly valuable. “I love to share my expertise, especially with students who are interested in taking up GIS as a career,” Malosu said. “It’s not very often you have people with a similar background in one place. It’s good to have people communicating with each other, learning, sharing their experiences, and networking.”

At the same time, he said a number of challenges remained in ensuring long-term sustainability for GIS projects, including obstacles to data sharing between organizations, lack of awareness, and limitations on funds and in-country experts.

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However, he pointed to Vanuatu’s new National Geospatial Data Policy to 2030 launched in November 2020, which seeks to improve centralization, coordination, and dissemination of what it describes as “fragmented” information. Malosu says this looks to address some of the problems, hopefully helping in areas such as awareness-raising and encouraging finance and scholarships for GIS activities.

Boosting sustainability

Meanwhile, Khaled Mashfiq, regional liaison for the Asia-Pacific region at UNOSAT, said students are a crucial part of the equation when it comes to the sustainability of projects. “The key is making informed decisions, and this young generation can pick up technology much faster than any of us,” he said. “There’s a huge demand because many agencies need the staff with this skill set. There are not enough of them.”

He agreed that the persistent problem of “brain drain” as people move abroad to join international organizations is an issue that has no obvious solution, but he hopes the training can create a larger “pool of resources” and a knowledge base to retain all the training materials and content amassed during the project over the past couple of years.

Furthermore, with the CommonSensing project currently due to end in March — though means are being sought to extend it — Einar Bjorgo, manager at UNOSAT and project director of CommonSensing, said that moves are in place to finalize integration of an open data cube in Fiji to help store, manage, and analyze Earth observation data. Additionally, the project is seeking to integrate more stripped-down data repositories in Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, as well as to put in place long-term in-country climate finance advisors.

“It’s not just training, it’s having the understanding of what this can do and having technical backstopping,” Bjorgo said, adding that enabling continuity requires following up on feedback with students and members of ministries after the training, not just during the sessions themselves.

Furthermore, Mashfiq said that during the next couple of months those involved in the training are now carrying out separate case studies that harness their learnings in areas such as flood susceptibility, mangrove change detection, and multihazard risk mapping.

By using island nations’ own data to address topics of interest that they themselves identify, he explained that the aim is to help improve engagement and technological integration by ministries, as well as establish more autonomy for the long run.

“This is how we want to close the loop with training, by slowly moving out of the scene and showing them if you want to do it, you can do it,” Mashfiq said, adding that support would be accessible in the form of a knowledge repository and troubleshooting assistance whenever needed.

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

  • Gareth Willmer

    Gareth Willmer is a freelance writer and subeditor based in London. His main coverage areas are science, technology and telecoms, as well as how changes and advances in these areas affect the developing world. He regularly works for publications including New Scientist and SciDev.Net, and previously worked as a subeditor for Nature.