Filling the Data Void

Research restores order to emergency operations

Karen Payne

Senior Public Service Associate

Carl Vinson Institute of Government

Written by Leigh Beeson

Published 5.10.18

It’s a familiar pattern.

Forecasters see a storm system forming in the Atlantic that’s headed straight for the islands dotting the Caribbean. They predict high amounts of rain, storm surges that will flood miles inland and winds that will tear homes apart. Islanders brace for impact, the storm hits and, almost as quickly as it came, it’s gone, leaving destruction and casualties in its wake.

Now it's up to international and local aid organizations to bring relief and start to rebuild. But first they have to know what they’re walking into.

Enter Karen Payne, a senior public service associate in the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at University of Georgia.

Payne trains U.N. responders to collect and apply geographic information systems (GIS) data. GIS data includes critical information—like the locations of towns, rivers, governmental boundaries and more—that enables relief organizations to select the best locations for aid relief and emergency shelters.

Karen PayneCarl Vinson Institute of Government

Our involvement really depends on what the country needs and where they’re trying to go; we try to figure out how to get them there.

“If you’re doing an emergency response—to a hurricane or earthquake, for example—aid workers need to have maps of where the impact is and know how many people were affected, what the path of the storm was and how big the devastation was,” says Payne. “Most developing countries don’t have the kinds of data sets that the U.S. has, though. Their geographic and governmental boundaries tend to change more than ours do. So, it becomes an issue of getting all the relief workers to refer to the same city in the same place, to know which local governments they need to liaise with and to know where territorial boundaries are.”

But gathering and compiling all the information into a comprehensive system is a challenge, especially because a country in crisis tends to lack resources and personnel. Payne and her team step in to fill those data voids.

“If they don’t have staff in the office, they can send data to us and have us do the vetting a technician normally would do. If they don’t have the capacity to train people on how to gather and input the information, we can go out into the field and do training with them,” she says. “Our involvement really depends on what the country needs and where they’re trying to go; we try to figure out how to get them there.”

 

We’re incredibly fortunate to be born in a rich country, and we have a responsibility to bring up those around us. It’s the right thing to do.

That often means creating data sets, setting up an online service where people from different agencies can access data, or analyzing data and helping to develop plans for emergency aid operations.

Through her partnership with the U.S. Agency for International Development, Payne has traveled the globe training people on the best practices for managing and using geographical and population information. The more she does it, the stronger she believes in what she’s doing.

“We live in a global world,” Payne says. “We need partners. We need alliances. We need those relationships with other countries, and they come from doing things like this. We’re incredibly fortunate to be born in a rich country, and we have a responsibility to bring up those around us. It’s the right thing to do.”

Support geographic informations systems research.

Donate to the Carl Vinson Institute of Government.

Give now
Maple Syrupof the South