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News — 30 August, 2023

Open Mapping for Disaster Preparedness: A Pilot Study in Zimbabwe

The Anticipatory Response Program (ARP), recently piloted in Zimbabwe, incorporates open mapping tools and workflows into disaster response and resilience efforts to move from a reactive to a proactive approach.

Cover photo: Introducing 360 mapping techniques in the field with a GoPro Max Camera. Courtesy of Letwin Pondo

In 2022, the Open Mapping Hub - Eastern and Southern Africa (OMH-ESA) launched the Anticipatory Response Program (ARP), an innovative approach to disaster management. This program seeks to incorporate open mapping tools and workflows into disaster response and resilience efforts, transforming the traditional reactive approach into a proactive one. The ARP was recently piloted in Zimbabwe, a country severely impacted by natural disasters such as floods, cyclones, and droughts.

The objectives of the ARP are:

  1. To identify and understand the gaps in anticipatory planning, preparedness, and response that can be filled with open geospatial data and tools.
  2. To understand the limitations in data tools and infrastructure supporting anticipatory action.
  3. To stimulate opportunities for joint project collaboration between community organizations, disaster agencies, and the OMH-ESA.
  4. Strengthening participation and ownership

Engaging the Stakeholders

Through a consultative workshop, OMH-ESA united various stakeholders, including disaster response organizations, communities, and government representatives, to deliberate on leveraging geospatial data to combat natural disasters. During this workshop, Caritas Zimbabwe, a local NGO, was recognized as a crucial partner for generating data and maps for disaster preparedness.

Workshop.jpeg Small groups actively discuss the most recent trends and their implications. Photo Courtesy of Elaine Muigai, ESA Hub

Scoping the Project

The ARP needed a location to pilot their program, and in collaboration with Caritas Zimbabwe, the OMH-ESA identified two districts as potential candidates: Chimanimani and Muzarabani. Due to its vulnerability to seasonal hazards such as floods and cholera outbreaks, Muzarabani was selected as the pilot site.


Pilot wards in Muzarabani District

Collecting the Data

Developing a data model was crucial to the project’s success. This model outlined the necessary data layers to be collected in the field and via remote mapping, covering critical facilities like health and education facilities, markets, shops/businesses, places of worship, open spaces, flood-prone road sections, public water points, and sanitation facilities.

Before the data collection, a one-day training workshop was conducted to familiarize participants with the ARP program’s goals and objectives, and the importance of mapping exercises in enhancing disaster response systems. The data collectors used motorbikes to access remote locations and regularly met with the team to assess progress and troubleshoot any challenges encountered.

FieldWork.jpeg A group of dedicated participants in Muzarabani District, marking the culmination of rigorous training during the workshop. Photo Courtesy of: Rachel Chinyanga, Caritas Zimbabwe

Data Analysis and Application

The ARP program’s next phase involved data analysis, during which the data was cleaned, modified, and will be uploaded to the OpenStreetMap (OSM) platform. Maps were developed based on the ARP data model and other geospatial disaster layers, which were used to identify vulnerable households and critical facilities.

A unique feature of this initiative was the incorporation of participatory GIS (Geospatial Information Systems), wherein the Caritas team provided feedback on the produced maps. This collaborative approach ensured the maps’ accuracy and relevance, and also helped equip the Caritas staff with open mapping tools and data, ultimately improving their planning capabilities.

Challenges, Lessons, and Suggestions

Despite the success of the ARP in Zimbabwe, there were a few suggestions from the involved stakeholders that can be deliberated in the next Anticipatory Response program:

  • The knowledge or experience obtained from the experimental districts should be used in all other districts the program could not reach at this stage.
  • The program is to identify other evacuation centers besides those identified by the partner organizations. It is of uttermost importance to engage the local people affected by the disasters in question. They have every detail about everything that goes on within their area, which is very important in disaster response.
  • Participants taking part in the disaster response should practice the data collection procedures using their own gadgets, thus empowering the local people.
  • There is a need for more time for training local people so that they master ways in which maps can facilitate disaster response. As the program aims to widen and expand to other countries within the region, the maps must not only be used as dashboards but should be used to enhance disaster response and preparedness, ultimately saving lives throughout the region.
  • It is always important to bring communication down to the community before deployments so they know who is coming into their area and for what purpose.

Looking Forward

In conclusion, the ARP program in Zimbabwe has demonstrated how granular open geospatial data and maps can significantly improve disaster preparedness and response. By anticipating and preparing for potential issues before they occur, communities can mitigate the devastating impacts of natural disasters. Disasters are everyone’s business.

The pilot program’s success sets the stage for further reviews and expansion across Zimbabwe and other regions prone to similar disasters. As we face an increasingly unpredictable future due to climate change, proactive, data-driven solutions such as the ARP will only become more crucial in fostering resilience and protecting vulnerable communities.

Here are some of the interactive maps for the five wards mapped so far: