GIS: A Tool for Meeting Development Goals

Photo by Laura Elizabeth Pohl for CRS

By Janeen Kim Cayetano

Catholic Relief Services is using geographic information systems technology, or GIS, more and more for monitoring, evaluating, analyzing and visualizing the impact of our work. This powerful tool has a wide range of applications in data gathering, analysis and communication. Although it’s commonly used to create maps for donor reporting, its real power lies in helping us analyze information to enhance planning and decision making.

What can I do with GIS?

GIS can analyze topographic, demographic, economic and environmental data to help manage projects. In general, GIS helps us view, understand, question and analyze—who, what, when, where, why and how—events occurred or will occur by analyzing, geographically, multiple factors simultaneously. From collecting information about our beneficiaries to finding suitable land to grow crops, and preparing for responses in natural disasters or other emergencies, GIS can help us make better informed decisions.

As is often the case when people are considering new technology, I find that questions about GIS have to do with how it is relevant to their daily work. Although we all welcome applications like Google Maps, Waze, Google Earth and other mapping technologies, many people aren’t yet familiar with GIS. The most frequent questions I get about GIS are, “Now that I have all the data, what do I do with it?” and “Can I use GIS?” What follows are many examples to help answer the first question. So, my answer to the second question is “Yes!” Location, through GPS coordinates, is one powerful element in GIS data. Most of the time, this data answers what, when and where. And patterns in the data can also answer “Why?” and “How?”

Food Security

During the Environmental Systems Research Institute, or Esri, User Conference this year, Jack Dangermond, Esri founder and president, mentioned how CRS’ leveraged GIS to address our sustainable development goals. While GIS is not new to CRS, it’s use within the organization has taken many forms over the years. In Senegal, to address climate change and the goal of zero hunger, CRS and other organizations, including Oxfam, Save the Children, Plan International, Action Against Hunger and World Vision, are using a customized GIS tool called AfricaRisk View. ARV allows countries to analyze the impact of weather data on drought-related food security risk. They can monitor the evolution of the rainy season using rainfall data from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, for example, in near-real time, as well as estimate the number of people affected and calculate the response cost for each drought event.

Water, Sanitation and Hygiene

Another innovation, achieving clean water, sanitation and hygiene, comes from the Sweet Sense project in Kenya. The project team installed water monitoring sensors at each borehole in Turkana County to indicate when a well needs repair. Because the community cannot afford mobile phones and doesn’t have an adequate signal anyway, these sensors use satellites powered by solar panels to monitor the wells. GIS maps of the borehole locations show which wells have the most plentiful non-saline water. With this innovation, clean water should no longer be an issue for the community.

Disaster Risk Reduction

In Northern Uganda and Niger, CRS partners with organizations including Humanitarian OpenStreetMap, or HOTOSM, to help local communities map factors related to WASH needs and flood risk. HOTOSM supports community mapping projects around the world for socioeconomic development and disaster preparedness. In Uganda HOTOSM mapped the accessibility and density of households over existing WASH facilities. In Niger, a community of students and young professionals used a mobile GIS application, GeoODK, to plot flood-prone areas of Niamey so the community could begin to minimize risk.

Agriculture and Nutrition

In Central America, CRS has been working with cacao production cooperatives to generate an interactive map of where different varieties of cacao can be grown that will generate more income for local farmers. The map data includes individual cacao plots and the NGOs supporting them, landowners’ holdings and soil data. The GIS map was presented at the Salon du Chocolat in Paris, a yearly trade fair for the international chocolate industry.

In Laos, ArcGIS Online maps overlaid on publicly accessible data are being used in considering where to target agricultural projects. GIS has helped pinpoint districts for possible programming interventions and develop strategies for the highest-need areas. Considerations include population, poverty, food security, agricultural productivity, micronutrient deficiency, and stunting and wasting.

GIS and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

One of the fastest and most efficient ways to capture accurate aerial imagery and transform it into maps or 3D models is by using UAVs with spectral cameras like LiDAR and other scanning tools. In 2017 CRS partnered with NetHope to perform agricultural analysis in some parts of Benin using a drone. Using the UAV image and software allowed us to count trees, detect crop stress and weeds, distinguish where there had been forest fires, and determine where there was planting space. In Haiti, UAVS are helping to map high-risk areas for emergency response preparation.

Reporting and Management

The most common application of GIS maps may be for reporting to donors and other stakeholders. In 2017, CRS partnered with the company Innovate! to design and develop an online interactive map for our U.S. Operations as well as CRS programs worldwide. Both maps helped improve automation and the quality of further mapping, globally and locally. Having a visual of the activities carried out with our Catholic Church partners in the United States and around the world helps inform the decision making of our leadership.

Moreover, several country programs and projects have been using Esri story maps, another effective way to communicate the scope and impact of our work, in reporting.

Future GIS Opportunities

The examples here provide clear and tangible evidence that GIS is a valuable tool with potential far beyond its current uses. Therefore, in FY 2017, CRS trained more staff on ways they can use GIS to improve their day-to-day work and the overall effectiveness of CRS projects. Smart and effective use of GIS can revolutionize our data collection, analysis and reporting, and support and strengthen CRS programming. Janeen Kim Cayetano is a GIS analyst for Catholic Relief Services, based in the Philippines. She provides remote GIS support to help CRS programs worldwide with GIS capacity building and solutions as part of the ICT4D community.

Janeen Kim Cayetano is a GIS analyst for Catholic Relief Services, based in the Philippines. She provides remote GIS support to help CRS programs worldwide with GIS capacity building and solutions as part of the ICT4D community.