Plotting the War on Terror and Disease

Smart mapping systems can predict the spread of viruses, replace paper charts, and help aid teams pool life-saving data

Maps are mundane, that's for sure. And yet rebuilding Iraq without good ones has been a nightmare. During Saddam Hussein's reign, only high-level loyalists had access to maps that showed where roads, hospitals, and sewers were located. And those maps were 10 years out of date, says Shawn Messick, senior analyst for the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation's Information Management & Mine Action Programs (iMMAP) in Iraq. Each international aid organization used its own version of the inaccurate maps, which often resulted in duplication of effort.

For instance, four humanitarian aid groups discovered that each had done damage assessments of the same hospitals, says Messick. And two other organizations repaired the same school building. That's why Messick, who since May has worked out of Basra and then Baghdad, is spearheading an effort to create a database of locations and conditions of buildings and infrastructure that can be shared by aid organizations. The database would generate detailed digital and paper maps using technology called GIS (geographic information systems) -- and possibly speed up Iraq's reconstruction by months.


  That's just one example of why computer mapping is becoming one of the most popular technologies used by nonprofits and governments to help solve social problems. A recent study by the environmental think tank World Resources Institute (WRI) in Washington has shown that mapping a cholera outbreak in South Africa in 2002 reduced the mortality rate from the usual 10% of those infected to 0.2%, says Dan Turnstall, a program director at WRI. South African health authorities used GIS maps to predict where the virus might spread -- and then began preventive measures, such as instructing people to boil water and milk. Many agencies have even discovered that the colorful illustrations that track a disease can increase their chances of getting donations. "We use GIS as a carrot," says Messick. "Many organizations now understand that [mapping] can make them look [more] like they know what they're talking about. It's also a great tool for showing progress."

GIS has been used by both the military and mining companies for 30 years. But until recently, the technology was prohibitively expensive -- and so complex that it took a PhD to run. But prices of computers, storage, and servers have fallen by as much as 75% in the past two years, as have prices for global positioning systems (GPS), which, in combination with GIS, can help pinpoint exact locations of buildings or disease outbreaks. Also, mapping software has become cheaper and less complex -- enough so it can be be used by just about anyone. And GIS has started to run on smart phones powered by Microsoft's (MSFT ) Windows CE operating system as well as on personal digital assistants -- a major plus for agencies that require mobility to do their field work.

The information in GIS databases has improved as well. Satellite images have become highly accurate, able to pinpoint someone's location within one meter. Such improvements allow nonprofits to map everything from epidemics to city slums. During 2001 and 2002, the public sector's use of GIS grew by five percentage points, to 30% of the overall market, according to tech consultancy Daratech. So while the rest of the technology business remains in the dumps, the world's GIS market should grow 8% this year, to $1.75 billion, Daratech predicts.


 That growth is driven in large part by new uses for the technology in helping fight everything from poverty to terrorism. City governments have begun using special GIS software to help curb the spread of viruses. This year, authorities in Winnipeg used software from technology integrator Intergraph (INGR ) -- instead of paper maps -- to keep track of areas where workers had sprayed mosquitoes. Also this year, technology powerhouse General Electric's (GE ) Network Solutions unit, part of GE Power Systems, joined with privately held location-technology company LinksPoint in Norwalk, Conn., to commercialize new software that helps predict West Nile virus outbreaks -- which killed 284 people in the U.S. last year and sickened around 4,000 others.

That system was designed by Sean Ahearn, director of the Center for Advanced Research of Spatial Information (CARSI) lab in New York, who also created GIS software that kept track of evidence collected after the collapse of the World Trade Center in 2001. His new software uses information on where and how many dead birds -- hosts of the West Nile virus -- are found. Then, it predicts the magnitude and location of future epidemics. In trials in New York City and Chicago, Ahearn says he was able to predict outbreaks with 80% accuracy two weeks before they occurred, enabling the cities to take preventive measures such as spraying for mosquitoes in the affected areas. The software is also much cheaper than the commonly used method for tracking West Nile: analyzing dead birds or putting out mosquito traps and checking insects for the virus. Many new GIS applications also focus on the needs of the developing world, such as ridding countries of land mines. In Iraq, the U.S. military fed information to international aid organizations on where it dropped bombs or abandoned tanks while the war was still on -- the first time such information has been giving during a conflict. GIS maps based on this data will help prioritize the postwar cleanup -- and also reduce one of the biggest costs of de-mining: finding the right camp spot for the workers who will clear the mines.


  Increasingly, GIS is being used to track and fight poverty. GIS maps can assist the world's poorest cities in parceling out vacant land to the people who squat on it. Giving them ownership would entitle these residents to city services such as bus routes and education, explains Carmelle J. Cote, international relations and federal account manager with privately held ESRI, the world's largest supplier of GIS software.

Of course, most developing countries have to overcome many obstacles before they can make use of GIS, with inadequate telecommunications infrastructure being a key obstacle. With high-speed Internet connections nonexistent in these countries, it can take GIS specialists three days to download one map, says WRI's Turnstall. Even dial-up access can be too costly in places such as Tanzania, where nearly 40% of the population lives below the poverty line. And most of the world's wireless networks aren't powerful enough for GIS information collected in the field to be sent via wireless to the home office. Thus, most field workers have to sync with a network back at their HQ -- which slows their work significantly.

Another major barrier to the use of GIS -- and the sharing of interagency data -- is the lack of manpower: Most nonprofits are stretched so thin that they feel they don't have time to record information, let alone share it. But that attitude usually backfires: Many aid outfits send staff to Iraq on rotations of three months to six months, and information stored only in the heads of one crew is easily lost, Messick notes.


 A shortage of money is also to blame for the slow spread of GIS technology, says Monica Schnitger, an analyst with Daratech. ESRI, for one, is offering to donate its software and Web-based training to 1,000 of the world's poorest cities. Last year, ESRI also donated $15 million worth of software and training to Nature Conservancy -- which, in turn, used it to help protect 15 million acres of water and land in the U.S. alone. The Conservancy hopes to install the software in most of its 400 offices worldwide over the next year, says Frank Biasi, NC's director of conservation systems. Until recently, he says, "we made decisions based on limited information" -- mainly using paper maps. "Now we feel much more confident in where and how we are doing conservation. GIS [is like] a Swiss army knife for conservation practitioners."

Major advances are on the horizon: Already, AON (AOC ), which both sells insurance and consults for other insurers, combines GIS with advanced modeling software and data on where its clients' buildings are located, to assess likely damage from earthquakes and hurricanes. That helps insurers calculate the rates they should charge their customers. The program can even simulate a hurricane moving across the ocean, says Steven Jakubowski, senior vice-president for impact forecasting at AON, which uses ESRI's GIS software. And wireless companies could soon start offering real-time feedback using GIS. "The uses are limited only by the imagination of the users," says Schnitger. Nonprofits are finally realizing this now -- and when it comes to computer mapping, they're starting to set the agenda.

By Olga Kharif in Portland

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