As part of the 2014–2015 Ebola response operation in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, Médecins Sans Frontières Switzerland (MSF-CH) started to systematically deploy dedicated Geographic Information Systems (GIS) officers to the field.
Primarily mandated to work in close collaboration with the epidemiologists, the GIS officers were charged with producing general overview maps, as well as topical maps that supported different aspects of the operation.
Both field and headquarters staff interviewed for this case study stressed that having dedicated GIS officers in the field was a major asset that had a significant positive impact on the operation. GIS support helped programme staff perform their tasks faster and target their activities more precisely and with fewer resources.
In total, the GIS officers produced more than 800 maps and related information products during 16 missions that took place between March 2014 and May 2015.
The following outputs were frequently mentioned as being the most useful:
• Base maps
Significant parts of the affected countries were very poorly mapped or had previously not been mapped at all. GIS officers, with the support of local staff and the virtual OpenStreetMap community, quickly produced maps that showed roads, buildings and other infrastructure. These base maps were not only useful for MSF, but were also helpful in building relationships with other humanitarian actors and representatives of the local governments.
• Identification of village, community and street names
GIS officers produced databases and maps with both the official and the colloquial names of villages, communities and streets in the areas of intervention. This helped staff to clarify quickly where patients had come from, which thereby enabled MSF to reach people in these locations more quickly.
Weekly updated maps of confirmed and suspected Ebola cases helped translate the progression of the epidemic from technical data into an easy-to-grasp map. As a result, staff at all levels had a better understanding of the emergency.
The interviews also highlighted the fact that most MSF staff knew very little about GIS prior to their deployment. Working alongside the GIS officers gradually changed that, and programme staff who have worked with GIS officers are now more likely to actively request GIS support. All interviewees emphasized that having the GIS officers in the field was essential for this learning process to occur.
Given the universally positive feedback on the role of the GIS officers, it is recommended that headquarters make GIS officers available to field offices on a more regular basis, particularly during epidemics.
In March 2014, Ebola viral haemorrhagic fever (VHF) broke out in southern Guinea. In the following months, the disease spread through parts of Guinea and most of Liberia and Sierra Leone. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) quickly deployed teams to assist with the response. In total, MSF employed more than 4,000 national staff from the affected countries and 1,300 international staff.
As part of this response, MSF Switzerland (MSF-CH) deployed nine dedicated Geographic Information Systems (GIS) officers for a total of 16 missions to the three countries. As the response progressed, this GIS capacity, which was provided by and initially supported the Operational Centre Geneva (OCG), turned into an intersectional resource that was also used by the Operational Centre Amsterdam (OCA) and the Operational Centre Brussels (OCB), as well as, to a lesser degree, by the Operational Centre Barcelona (OCBA) and the Operational Centre Paris (OCP).
While MSF staff have been using maps and GIS technology for many years, the use of dedicated GIS staff in the field was still very uncommon until late 2014.
The decision to send dedicated GIS officers to the affected countries was informed by a study on the use of GIS within MSF1, which had identified epidemiology as “the domain where GIS can bring the most positive evolution”2. It was, furthermore, based on the GIS Strategy for MSF-CH3 (see also 3. Strategic Objectives).
This case study aims to examine whether the GIS officers’ missions to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone have succeeded in supporting the emergency response and furthering the strategic goals defined in the GIS Strategy. The findings of this case study are based on oral and written interviews with 20 MSF team members and two external partners who were either deployed as part of the Ebola response themselves or at headquarters; it is also based on the end-of-mission reports of five GIS officers.
This case study is an update of the first case study, written in July 2014.
Where the first study looked only at the first deployment of a GIS officer to the field in Guéckédou, Guinea, this document summarizes the experiences and lessons learnt from all deployments that were part of the Ebola response, including the first mission.