GEOSPATIAL REVOLUTION: Climate changes, hunger, diseases and people empowerment

You need to know what’s happening on the earth in a spatially continuous way and how this varies over time. Both of those are provided by geospatial technologies. Maps bring knowledge and understanding to bring better judgement.

MONITORING A CHANGING CLIMATE – An earth scientist wants to know how the earth works. That’s what mapping is ultimately telling us! Where things are, how they’re related, how it’s put together to tell us the story of what really is happening. Geospatial technology is a fundamental tool if we hope to understand what’s happening on the planet. Especially in the study of climate, where many different things need to be studied simultaneously.

At NASA, geospatial data and observations of the earth like vegetation, rainfall and atmosphere indexes are taken. Satellites are watching how fast the ice goes over time for example. So, with repeated satellite data, you can answer: are things changing? If they’re changing, why are they changing? We know that humans are changing the atmosphere and that the temperature is going up. How do we know if our CO² is actually causing the warming? It also allows deforestation change detection. By combining satellite data with data from lasers to tell heights, it’s very easy to study deforestation from space. As climate changes, we need to be able to know what the extent of those changes are, and only looking through time we can determine how these things impact our day to day lives.

PREVENTING HUNGER – There are a billion hungry people in the world. Geospatial technology plays a crucial role in helping us make good decisions about where, to who and how much food aid goes. When there’s a food shortage, citizens become desperate to feed their families. When that sustenance is not provided, there’s a potential of conflict that can elevate to military conflict, as well as increase potential terrorism. The Foreign Agricultural Service works hand in hand with sister agencies, the state department, USAID, Fews Net and NASA to monitor crop production worldwide. Linking satellite imagery with ground observations and rainfall data, the impact of drought can be determined. What we’re talking about is photosynthesis. Satellite data shows quantitatively how much energy from the sun is being absorbed by green leaves, and, then, the risk for food insecurity can be determined.

In 2005, Zimbabwe, which had a lot of political issues, produced far less food than it usually did. On top of that, came a drought. Something really needed to be done, but there was no good ground information to know exactly how much assistance should be offered. Using the vegetation index and the productivity in previous years, the needed food aid for about 6 or 8 million people was able to be determined.

TRACKING DISEASES – Disease tracking has been in existence for hundreds of years! During the cholera outbreak in London in 1854, a doctor named John Snow started mapping out cholera deaths. Cholera is a devastating disease, it can work amazingly fast. You can be well in the morning and you can be near death by the evening. People didn’t really know what was causing the deaths, so he went around to every household and started to record how many deaths they had and, then, he asked where they got their drinking water. In those days, water all came from hand pumps. By putting this representation down on a map, he was able to see a pattern of cholera death spreading out near some water pumps. He went to the health board and said to remove these pump handles, and cholera deaths started to decline in these neighborhoods. Snow was able to affect public policy by convincing people with the simple method of his map. What John Snow did in 1854 still happens today.

Hajj is a pilgrimage which Muslims from 160 different countries make to Mecca. Three million people from all around the world come together in one spot, but, in 2009, with the Swine Flu outbreak, the ministry of Saudi Arabia was concerned. There are probably no other gatherings where crowd density can be quite so high for so long. This was one of the most dynamic public health challenges. If you look at how disease spreads, place becomes extremely important! The tracking of H1N1 is a powerful application of the geospatial technology.

MAPPING POWER TO THE PEOPLE – One of the largest informal settlements in Africa is in Kenya, in the city of Nairobi, called Kibera. It’s a very dense and intense place, a slum that comprises more than 200,000 people in 2.5km² of 13 villages and 12 tribes. If you look at maps, from any existing source, Kibera was invisible! No public schools, health facilities, sanitation or even maps. Just a blank spot on the map.

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