Guest Lecturers Put Spotlight on Mapping Tools for Crisis

On 13 February 2014, two special guest speakers spoke to ICMS students on the applicability and utility of different types of mapping tools when preparing for and managing a crisis.


Special guest lecturer, Dr. Barry Bialek from Boulder, Colorado, USA, was invited to speak to ICMS students about the application of GPS mapping technology to crisis management situations, opening with an overview of the principles of WASH (water supply, sanitation and hygiene), essential elements of emergency response and sustainable development.

(More about this can be found in The Sphere Handbook, available online and in Nepali, which contains widely-recognized standards for delivering humanitarian assistance.) 

Dr. Bialek proceeded to present the stages of crisis management administration necessary to deliver sustainable results, applicable in areas of energy, shelter, health, security and policy. Initially, when a crisis hits, emergency services come into play, after which transitional services need to be delivered within the context of recovery. Following this, one moves to permanent services as part of the development stage, before reaching sustainable development, where ‘green’ services are ideally provided.  One more essential stage is required however, which should ‘plant the seeds’ for long-term success, namely mitigation and preparation. This involves decentralized services, or availability of services in multiple locations. Oral rehydration therapy is one success story of health decentralization, which saves millions of lives.

To exemplify further, Dr. Bialek explained how energy could be provided with kerosene generators in the rapid response stage of a natural disaster. At the development stage, the national grid would become important, followed by generation of green energy for sustainable development. For mitigation, a decentralized grid is necessary. Dr. Bialek stressed the need to think long-term when performing rapid response, saying preparedness is the key.


Dr. Bialek went on to present the powerful impact GPS mapping has had on project planning through his work at the Namsaling Community Development Center (NCDC) in Ilam, founded in 1985. He explained that GPS mapping can help to find the root cause of problems in an area, which in turn can help managers to choose and plan priority projects. As a doctor, he was concerned about reducing the amount of water-borne illnesses present in the area of Namsaling. From 2008 to 2009, NCDC carried out a health survey using GPS mapping tools, which aided in community assessment and prioritization of WASH projects. Local people were trained to collect data and all households were then mapped using GPS. This method of mapping and overlapping it with other collected data, such as location and types of water supplies in the area, allows you to understand why an area is prone to certain illnesses. This then permits you to prioritize problems and projects such as digging of water wells, which will mitigate further outbreaks of illness. Dr. Bialek highlighted how this same method could easily be applied to other areas of crisis and crisis management.


Two important project characteristics for Dr. Bialek and NCDC are inclusion of the community in all aspects of its development and sustainability, remarking, ‘Democracy really means empowering people’. In this regard, Dr. Bialek was able to report wonderful results with 62 percent of NCDC identified projects completed within their five-year planned timeframe. In addition, an average of 40 percent were funded by locals, giving the community ownership of the projects as well as pride in the results. With regards to the importance of sustainability, Dr. Bialek noted that NCDC has a strategic plan for making Ilam sustainable for the next 100 years, urging all organizations and crisis managers to similarly think 100 years ahead, not five.

The second guest speaker of the evening was Dr. Nama Raj Budhathoki of Kathmandu Living Labs (KLL), speaking about the great benefits of crisis mapping for mitigation of disasters though the use of mobile and Internet-based technology. Dr. Budhathoki first explained the birth of OpenStreetMap, a free, editable mapping tool developed in 2004 by a UCL graduate in the UK. The success of this free map enterprise relies upon the fact that everyone has local knowledge that can be shared through the recording of locations on a Smartphone and uploading this to the Internet. This knowledge sharing is the driving philosophy behind Kathmandu Living Labs. Thus, in 2011, Dr. Budhathoki met with other Nepalis who shared an interest in open source software and design, and began the task of mapping Kathmandu for the first time.

One of Kathmandu Living Labs’ current projects aims to reduce disaster risk such as earthquakes and improve efficiency of disaster response by mapping all educational institutions and health facilities in the Kathmandu Valley. Dr. Budhathoki elucidated how the first step in this process is to assess the vulnerability of these buildings by collecting data such as type of construction materials used, capacity, facilities available and so on. Once the school and hospital structures are mapped using geo-data and uploaded onto the interactive OpenStreetMap, the buildings can be linked to the collected data and freely downloaded with one click.

Such mapping and data is invaluable for governments and the disaster community for evaluating safety, planning for disaster and setting budgets. For example, Dr. Budhathoki described how the Red Cross uses this information to aid in their relief efforts. In addition, a vast number of people, including Nepali citizens, contributed to the relief effort after Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in 2013, when they helped map structures using remote sensing. The data could then be downloaded into GPS devices, greatly helping rescue teams navigate and locate people.

This type of crowdsourcing is fully editable by the general public, meaning it is a self-correcting system, with the capacity to keep up to speed with changes in the environment, something printed and proprietary maps would struggle with. Dr. Budhathoki pointed out how this can save lives in first response scenarios and can be an invaluable tool for preparedness. Crisis informatics - that is, studying the role information can play in times of crisis - is an exciting and growing field to be in. Dr. Budhathoki urged those present to visit to find out how to start mapping and contributing to global humanitarian and development operations.


Dr. Bialek joined the Peace Corps in 1974, volunteering as a math and science teacher in Ilam villages. While there, he was inspired to become a doctor and also began his lifelong involvement in community development, initiating the Namsaling Community Development Center, NCDC. You can find out more about this NGO at


To find out more about Dr. Budhathoki’s work, visit Learning materials are freely available by clicking on the Resources tab. In addition, ktmlivinglabs hold open office hours every Friday, from 1-4pm in their Bulawater premises, where you can learn how to get involved. OpenStreetMap is accessible at

Read KLL's blog about this presentation here.