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Early Careers Network

On 4th July 2017 the AGI Early Careers Network (ECN) held the first webinar of its upcoming series. Matt Pennells, a member of the AGI council and digital consultant at ConsultingWhere, discussed his work volunteering for the charity MapAction, who provide vital disaster relief through GIS technology. 

The team at map action acquire and distribute information through maps, helping other aid agencies to understand the scale of the emergency response required, and how best to target their efforts.

During the webinar Matt talked about the nature of the charity, as well as his first hand experience working with MapAction in challenging environments - especially in response to the 2015 Earthquake in Nepal. The mobilisation of a MapAction team to Nepal was reported by the AGI at the time; to find out more have a look at the articles discussing the initial deployment, and giving an overview of the operation.

As a digital consultant and location intelligence specialist for ConsultingWhere, Matt discussed his day to day work and gave some tips on getting into the Geospatial industry. The Q&A below answers some questions from webinar participants about both MapAction and the wider geospatial industry, and covers topics from the techniques used in an emergency humanitarian response to which markets might see significant advances in the use of geospatial technology.

If you missed the MapAction action Webinar you can watch it online here. If you'd like to find out more about MapAction, how they operate, their current deployments and how you could be involved check out their website.

To keep up to date with upcoming webinars and other events run by the ECN, use the twitter handle @AGI_ECN, or check the AGI online events calendar, where you can find out about all AGI events, including GeoCom17 - the upcoming AGI conference.

Webinar Q&A with Matt Pennells

Who decides where MapAction operates?

MapAction’s services are often requested by the Government of a country, via the United Nations or one of its partners, if deploying with an International Non Governmental Organisation (INGO) MapAction would have permission to work, via their licences in country.

MapAction offers in services to most emergencies, and the scope of what we offer differs depending on what the requirement is in country. For instance some countries have existing GIS capacity, and in those cases working on supporting skills, or establishing workflows can best support the response, where a country/agency does not have mapping staff, the outputs are sometimes the most useful product.

MapAction would deploy to most emergencies requiring a search and rescue, or emergency medical capacity; which is to say most significant earthquakes or storm events. In all other responses it is a process of reviewing the requirements against our ability to support the response.

We have the capacity to deploy to more than one disaster at once, and often do. The final decision lies with MapAction’s Chief Executive, factors in her decision, along with other staff input include, safety, need and whether MapAction being in the field will deliver benefit to the people affected.

​Regarding the food crisis in Africa, what are exactly your actions on the field? What type of mapping are you doing there?

MapAction has completed a number of maps looking at armyworms (pest infestations) in several countries affected by food insecurity and are currently working with the IFRC to map elements of their response data.

Are all the final products/updated maps directly available on OSM as OpenSource data? Did you already work in Kaffrine region (Senegal) and Mopti region (Mali)?

We do make all our products open, unless there are any particular safety, security or licensing reasons why we cannot. You can find these via our website or other humanitarian web platforms. Many of our outputs are strategic maps to support decision making so do not necessarily contain permanent features that would end up in something like OSM. Saying that, MapAction are actively involved with OSM, especially HOT OSM so we always look to enrich it where possible or more commonly highlight the areas that will deliver the most benefit if enriched.

We have responded in Senegal and Mali, and in preparedness for Ebola worked across Mali, however have not got ongoing responses in either of these regions.

​When are you next recruiting? In the new year? And if so, how many new volunteers will you be looking to recruit? 

MapAction recruits annually, normally advertising positions in January of each year, the next recruitment window is therefore January 2018. The intake varies but is normally around 10 people as it depends on many factors.

Every year we receive many times more expressions of interest in volunteering than we have available volunteer vacancies. So, unfortunately, even people with excellent skills and experience are not always selected. However, we do still greatly appreciate all volunteering applications and if you do not succeed please try again. We have several current volunteers who were recruited on their second or third try.

​What software are you using here? ArcGIS? ArcGIS + a graphic design programme? ​Specifically to produce the final product.

Most of the maps you see on our website are created in ArcGIS Desktop, however the majority of our training is delivered via QGIS, in addition we also make maps in PowerPoint.

We do not commonly use designer packages to finish our maps, it is worth saying here that maps are produced in the field often under tight time pressures so there intention is to be functional and informative not necessarily perfect cartographic products (although we always try!) Our aim is to produce a visual output that gets the job done.

​What qualifications do volunteers need?

We look for volunteers in three main areas, deployable field volunteers, software developers and technical support. You can find role descriptions with requirements for these on our website (link below) it is worth saying that it is as much about experience as it is skills, and a significant emphasis is placed on team work and troubleshooting ability!

Volunteering with Mapaction https://mapaction.org/get-involved/volunteer/

​I guess they are using OSM and possibly JOSM first to capture data and then possibly QGIS or ArcGIS?

In the field we use many data sources, after a disaster it is often a case of using whatever you can get your hands on, in slower moving crisis or the later stages of a sudden onset disaster we are likely to start using standardised background maps such as HOT OSM outputs or latest satellite imagery etc. We don’t often deploy out in the field to actually capture / survey new data via tools such as JOSM, we act more as a central coordination hub for any geospatial information available.

Is there free data (GIS) that can be downloaded?

Yes, whenever possible we upload both our maps and the raw data to our Map and Data portal on our website, it is also worth keeping an eye on other central humanitarian data sharing platforms such as HDX (https://data.humdata.org/)

Good question. Do you submit your data to something like the HDX?

Yes we do, we are just finishing off a project so that when MapAction uploads a new map or data it automatically gets picked up by other major humanitarian websites.

Did you engage at all with Kathmandu Living Labs?

Yes, this was during the Nepal 2015 Earthquake response, we often engage with local resources as they nearly always have the best data and on the ground knowledge. Every disaster is different though so we are not always as lucky to find establish geospatial groups such as KLL.

Do you use Arc Collector in the field?

As mentioned above, we don’t commonly go out into the field to do direct data collection, when we do our tools can vary from simple GPS data collection through to something like Collector or more commonly Kobo which is a tool developed for both geospatial and interview type data (see http://www.kobotoolbox.org/) it is build on an open technology called ODK. Again in the field, we focus on getting our hands on accurate data, it doesn’t matter too much what tool collected it.

London Missing Maps event tonight, Cambridge event next Thursday!

Indeed, I mentioned a great initial way to support humanitarian mapping is to help fill in some of the gaps, a great project to do this via is Missing Maps you can do this from home or at events, keep an eye on http://www.missingmaps.org/

Dharma, OpenMapKit, OpenDataKit are other MDC technologies.

Yes, there are many out there, as mentioned above we will work with anything that gives us better data and help build the common operational picture after a disaster. It is worth saying, like all industries, the speed of tech change means there is often something new in each disaster whether it be drones, a new data collection app, we monitor all these activities and decide which ones to focus on by what we see in the field, MapAction stay nimble so they can continue to deliver the best products with the best data from a field environment.

Do you have to be in full employment to start getting involved in MapAction?

In short, no you can get involved in MapAction in many ways from fundraising to volunteering. Being in employment doesn’t matter but your skills and length of experience may. Best to have a look at all the opportunities on our website https://mapaction.org/get-involved

Is it worth becoming and accredited drone pilot, and which markets in the UK do you see an increased need to geospatial consulting?

I don’t think drones are going to go away, it is a technology that is continuing to develop and find it’s useful place in the market. Going as far as an accredited pilot is an option but remember the rules and regulations are different in different countries so accreditation might not be valid in different places. It would look great on a CV but be mindful with the growth of autonomous vehicles not all drones will need a pilot… As for consulting, the public sector still has a long way to come with regards to understanding geospatial and where it can add value. In addition, with the rise of ‘Business Intelligence’ and themes such as GeoTech there are also a lot of commercial companies that are discovering the power of data, they will need help in understanding where ‘location’ plays a part, broadly this is the application of location intelligence.

Do you have tips on working abroad in geospatial technologies / So many of my fellow Geospatial colleagues are keen to work abroad for the experience and adventure. Is it best to go through a recruitment agency and fix your sites on a country? Or choose a company and see where they have the opportunities?

Working overseas is all about planning and knowing in advance what you are doing. The approach comes down to personal risk appetite. One can just move to a country and go job hunting but this is high risk and don’t forget things like visas too. The best too approaches is to either apply for roles in other countries, either directly or via an agency or work for a big company that you know does overseas postings. If you apply via an agency always double check the details are as good as they seem. If via a big company you are likely not the only one who wants to go so make sure you excel and stand out. Moving with a company will always be easier as they look after the practicalities too.

My personal opinion, if you are going to travel overseas to work in geospatial, try to look for field work as office blocks and desks look very similar wherever you are in the world!

Other attractive markets for the geospatial industry

Earth observation is definitely going through a revamp, technology has caught up now so we can really start harnessing the data and earth observation collects. Have a look what Satellite Catapult are up to for ideas of where it can be applied. As for other markets, take your pick, geospatial is so widespread you see it emerging more and more in construction (BIM) travel and tourism, sport and marketing. Trick is with geospatial, don’t go looking for GIS as not many people know what that is, instead go looking for the problem that geospatial can help solve.

Thanks again, any more questions please get in touch via our website www.mapaction.org or www.consultingwhere.com

Speaker Info: 

Matt Pennells is an Information Management professional, specialising in location intelligence, with an extensive career in public, private and voluntary sectors. His work and volunteering has led him through many topics and business areas both in the UK and overseas.

Currently Matt leads ConsultingWhere’s Middle East & Africa Office from Dubai.  Matt also volunteers with the international humanitarian mapping charity MapAction which sees him deployed to disaster affected areas around the world. He represents the geospatial industry through his role as Director of the Association for Geographic Information (AGI) and outreach work with academia and mentoring. 

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