By Juli Miller
GIS, or Geographic Information System, is a system that allows for the mapping, analysis, and manipulation of geographical and spatial data. It serves as a method to solve physical issues via virtual development, enabling the visualization of trends that may have gone previously undetected. In effect, experts versed in this system are exceptionally capable of resolving issues in transportation, urban planning, crime prevention, public health, and disaster response.
“Would GIS professionals be willing to volunteer their time to those in need of their expertise?” This is the question that prompted Shoreh Elhami to create a network of skilled volunteers. Known as GISCorps, this organization now allocates carefully selected GIS professionals to areas in need, elegantly answering Ms. Elhami’s foundational question. Fortunately, the American Geographical Society was given the opportunity to speak with Ms. Elhami, founder of the URISA program’s GISCorps, regarding the foundation and evolution of her organization.
Ms. Elhami began posing the idea for GISCorps to her professional colleagues in 2001. Initially, the Corps was intended to focus on education in local communities. However, it quickly became evident that volunteers would be most beneficial following major global disasters. By 2003, the Corps was endorsed by the GIS association, URISA, signifying it’s inauguration as an official organization. Shortly after, GIS professionals began disaster response missions to areas like the Asian tsunami in 2004 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, realizing Ms. Elhami’s goal. There, their work included pinpointing the locations of disaster victims, updating maps of the affected regions, and partnering with local organizations to improve GIS technology. In the following years, crowd-sourced missions became more commonplace, starting with the 2008 cyclone Nargis in Myanmar, where volunteers worked to map affected regions. By the 2010 Haiti earthquake, crowd-sourced missions had become the dominant practice in GISCorps.
Currently, GISCorps is proud to support a list of over 5,700 registered volunteers across 130 global countries. The organization has recently commenced its 275th mission, emphasizing the collective effort of over 2,000 highly skilled volunteers working throughout 88 different countries.
In order to determine where to allocate GIS professionals, the Corps follows a process heavily dependent on whichever organizations are requesting the aid. Once a request is officially submitted, the search for viable volunteers begins. “It is important to note that we only engage with non-profit organizations or with governmental entities when they are impacted by a disaster,” states Ms. Elhami. Detailed job descriptions are then developed, streamlining the internal recruitment process. Qualified candidates are subsequently contacted and interviewed to allow for individual selection. Finally, the chosen professionals are then put into direct contact with the organization in need, and a plan is developed.
Its most recent completed missions include mapping America’s threaten regions during the 2019 hurricane season. One completed report is titled, “GISCorps Volunteers Map Hurricane Dorian Preparedness and Damage”, stating that volunteers were needed to “enhance situational awareness for emergency managers and first responders in affected areas.” Other completed projects include visualizing trends of polio outbreaks in Kenya, as well as improving a map of “food insecure hot-spots” in the Washington D.C. region.
In terms of future exploits, the Corps will continue to export professionals to governments and non-profit organizations in need of GIS skilled individuals. Its commitment to aiding the spread of GIS knowledge to areas in need is a core value of the Corps, and plays a significant role in serving disaster response. Plans to expand the Core Committee are in order, adding full-time members with greater time to commit themselves to disaster response projects.
GISCorps remains a volunteer-based organization. If you or someone you know might be interested and is qualified to serve, visit their website to learn more.