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GISCorps Assists World Health Organization in Mapping Ebola Response Activities

In December 2013, a two-year old child in a remote village in southeastern Guinea died from a then-unidentified disease. From that beginning arose the unprecedented West Africa Ebola outbreak which eventually infected 26,093 people in 15 countries, caused over 10,000 deaths, and gave rise to fears of a worldwide pandemic.

By the end of 2014 these fears were still peaking. For the Ebola crisis, the United Nations (UN) had established the first-ever UN emergency health mission, the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER). From its headquarters in Accra, Ghana, UNMEER oversaw a huge network of response activities in Africa, and directed the work of tens of thousands of brave response workers.

In December 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) requested the assistance of GISCorps to support UNMEER in the mapping of their West Africa Ebola response activities. Five volunteers, knowledgeable in GIS (Geographic Information Science) and advanced web mapping capabilities, were requested to work from four to six weeks in the three hardest-hit African countries (Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone), as well as in the UNMEER headquarters in Accra, Ghana, and in the WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.

GISCorps sent out a recruitment letter on December 6, and within a few days, received responses from 47 volunteers, who wanted to assist in this worldwide crisis, and were willing to forego the holiday season with friends and loved ones to work in potentially hazardous conditions in Africa.

After a busy two-week process of screening and interviews, GISCorps selected our volunteers: Leslie Zolman from Montana, to work in Ghana; Charleen Gavette from California, to work in Liberia; Emmanuel Lansana from Sierra Leone, to work in Sierra Leone; and Jeff Pires from Massachusetts, to work in Geneva, Switzerland. Regrettably we were unable to provide a volunteer for Guinea because a French-speaking GISCorps expert could not be located on such short notice. After an exhaustive round of international paperwork, our volunteers traveled and worked in their destinations during the period January to April, 2015.

Upon arrival at their duty stations, each of our GISCorps volunteers found unique conditions and challenges. It takes grit and adaptability to enter a foreign environment and accomplish effective work in a very short period. Each of our volunteers performed admirably; here are their stories.

GISCorps Volunteer Team, from left: Emmanuel Lansana, Leslie Zollman, Jeff Pires, Charleen Gavette.

Leslie Zollman (Ghana)

I was selected to work in Accra, Ghana at UNMEER headquarters as the GIS Officer to provide support to various UN and NGO organizations.  My job description was very broad and I knew going in that I would be offering any and all GIS skills I had to support UNMEER as needed.  However, my main focus was to work with the other GISCorps volunteers to implement ArcGIS Online in the three affected countries, which would provide a consistent mapping platform that WHO could use for analysis and reporting during the Ebola response effort.

Ghana GIS Team – Office area where the Information Management Unit worked – Luis Aguilar from Columbia is in yellow and Robert Colombo from Spain is in the green print

UNMEER was created almost overnight by the UN as a means for the UN and NGOs to respond quickly to the Ebola outbreak.  This huge network of organizations and responders was overwhelming upon my arrival in Accra.  After an overnight flight, with no sleep, I went directly to the UNMEER office and was taken to a “standing” meeting that was in progress.  I missed most of the introductions but there were over 15 organizations such as WHO, UNICEF, USAID, WFP, UNDP and the German military present.  As I focused on remaining standing after a day of flying with no sleep I was amazed at how these organizations, large and small, were putting aside their normal operating procedures, trying hard to not step on each other’s toes and staying focused on the goal of stopping the Ebola outbreak.  During my five weeks in Accra this amazement grew as did my understanding of why these organizations and responders were here.  They all had one goal and did not let procedures, politics and difficulties change their focus.

Admin 3 & 4 boundaries – Example of the use of the admin 3 and 4 boundaries created by Leslie Zolman

The first two weeks of my deployment were challenging.  UNMEER HQ was a place in flux with people traveling to and from the affected countries.  The first day I arrived I was able to talk with my boss before he left for 10 days.  The GIS Officer that I was replacing had departed a week before I arrived.  I was given a copy of his data and map templates but no direction.  On my second day I was asked to update a map.  This should have been an easy task but I first had to understand the data, what the history of the map series was and which of the many map templates to use.  After research, many questions and almost a week of time I finally completed the request.  Over the next few weeks I was able to create custom maps for UNMEER staff in the field and at HQ.  One of the main projects was a map illustrating the number of unsafe burials, untreated Ebola deaths and number of new cases.  This map was used during Phase 2 of the response to focus efforts on reducing exposure to the virus outside treatment centers.

Presenting at WHO HQ – Leslie giving a 5 min field presentation to the Ebola team in Geneva

During my third week in Accra Charleen and Jeff were deployed to Liberia and Geneva.  Their deployment provided support and renewed the vision of implementing ArcGIS Online in the affected countries.  However, as we all realized, the goals for our deployment could not always be accomplished in our location and within the time of our deployment.  I found that being flexible, applying my skills where needed and keeping the focus on doing whatever I could to help stop the outbreak were truly the qualifications for the UNMEER GIS Officer and all the responders to the Ebola outbreak.

UNMEER Ghana GIS Team – Timur Obukhov UN Cartographer, Luis Aguilar Information Management Officer, Roberto Colombo Data Management Officer and Leslie Zolman GIS Officer

Upon realizing that my focus would not be implementing ArcGIS Online in the affected countries I shifted my focus to acquiring administrative boundaries for Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.  WHO and the other organizations were using an assortment of boundary datasets.  Many of the datasets were in conflict with each other or were unreliable.  However, they were the only datasets available and as resources were being devoted to stopping the outbreak, collecting and updating boundaries was a low priority.  Working in UNMEER HQ and meeting weekly with the UNMEER offices in the affected countries allowed me to request authoritative boundaries from each country and work with them to correct database errors and fix overlaps and gaps between boundaries.  I was also able to work with the UN Cartographer stationed in Accra to adapt the boundaries to the adopted UN country boundaries.  This provided administrative 1 to 4 boundaries that nested within each other.  The updated boundaries allowed WHO to geocode all the Ebola cases; they had over 300 cases that could not be geocoded.  It also allowed for more detailed analysis and reporting as fewer Ebola cases were reported and a finer focus was given to stopping the outbreak.

The last week of my deployment was in Geneva.  I was debriefed, presented a five minute field report at the weekly Ebola update meeting and worked directly with Jeff and the Geneva WHO GIS team on the boundaries.  Once I returned home I continued to work on final boundary changes and received approval from Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia on the changes.  The boundaries are now being used by WHO and the humanitarian community.

WHO Geneva GIS team – Kevin Crampton (Project Manager), Jeff Pires (GISCorps), Leslie Zolman (GISCorps), Amanda Maher (Intern), Ravi Shankar (Technical Officer)

My time with WHO and UNMEER was hard, exhausting, confusing and life changing.  It was an honor to work with such an amazing group of diverse people and organizations and see people give so much to stop the Ebola outbreak.  The boundary work I focused on was not sexy or exciting but I feel that the work provided a foundational base to be established, that will help in this outbreak and future events.

I would like to thank everyone at GISCorps for all the work they did to make this mission happen, from the core team to the volunteers that worked from home to the other volunteers what were deployed.  It was amazing to be part of such a wonder and supportive team and assist in the Ebola response.  I would also like to thank my boss and the Montana Department of Commerce for allowing me, on such short notice, to take a six week leave.

Charleen Gavette (Liberia)

My mission turned out to be entirely different from what GISCorps had indicated and what my WHO Terms of Reference indicated.  GISCorps, with guidance from WHO headquarters in Geneva, planned on a mission geared toward internet mapping.  The WHO office in Liberia set the duties as standardization of field data collection and integration into a GIS.  The actual mission became a mixture of coordination and collaboration on behalf of WHO with other relief agencies in Monrovia, collection and archiving of existing data, writing standardized procedures for standing requests of weekly map production, providing one-on-one mentoring over 3 weeks for two new Liberian national WHO GIS employees, providing maps requested by WHO staff, and acting as an advocate for training for WHO and the Liberian national GIS agency.

Within the first few days of arriving at the WHO Liberia office it became apparent that neither of the 2 anticipated position descriptions (internet mapping, field data collection) were to occur.  The primary reason was that WHO Liberia had not had a dedicated GIS professional.  Prior to my arrival there had been individuals who were knowledgeable in GIS but their primary duties were in another capacity such as infection control or epidemiology.  Their GIS skills were employed in the course of their work but not for cross disciplines.  Upon my arrival I received a data stick with a scant few shape files and one map template from an epidemiologist who left the day after I arrived.  This was the extent of GIS resources at the office.

Realizing that there was nothing to map and nothing to map with, I resisted the first few days confusion and feeling of uselessness.  With the help of my immediate supervisor at WHO Liberia (Sohpie Tyner) I was able to contact GIS practitioners within the Ebola response sector during the first week.  Contacts included United Nations Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER) (UNMEER had already produced a completed Interactive Mapper), the U. S. Army, Liberian Institute of Statistics and Geo-information Services (LISGIS), the Liberian Ministry of Health, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  From these agencies I was able to collect a fair amount of base GIS data.  However, as I attempted to map I realized that many of the datasets were in conflict and unreliable.

From my conversations with the other GIS specialists and from the state of the data I found my mission.  In speaking with the other agencies I learned that the GIS practitioners in Liberia did not communicate with each other.  Attempts had been made in the past to form a discussion group but there was never follow through.  Additionally, the data I was able to secure, even with its flaws, was the data in use throughout the country although not every agency possessed the same data.  It became clear that for GIS to be functional for WHO the biggest need was to begin collaborations with fellow agencies and to establish standardized data collection, revision, and distribution procedures.

Fortunately, there was agreement among the contacts I spoke with regarding coordination.  They all readily consented to participate in a general meeting to discuss GIS within Liberia and also agreed to explore establishing a standing meeting.  During my stay we had two more meetings and had identified an individual to continue organizing the group.  In the middle of April I was informed that a GIS workshop, organized by this group, is to be held to detail current and future GIS use in Liberia.

The other main portion of my duties was to mentor two Liberian nationals who were about to be hired on to WHO Liberia.  Both were GIS graduates and had also been attending a weekly Saturday GIS course taught by an individual with the National Geospatial-intelligence Agency attached to the U. S. Army.  For three weeks I sat with the gentlemen every other day.  We developed projects for standardized maps and wrote and tested step-by-step procedures to ensure they would be able to create the needed work once I departed.  During that time we explored GIS aspects they were not familiar with and I served as a resource for them.  Additionally, as they were brought on to WHO Liberia, we made staff introductions and I was able to help them navigate some protocols.

Throughout this time I also completed quick location maps for the Infection Control and Prevention Team and the Epidemiology Team.  These were mainly for their use to identify spatial gaps in community training.

My time in Liberia was productive, rewarding, and personally beneficial.  I was able to leave knowing the GIS program was in capable hands and having set up the new GIS staff with the support resources they may need.

Jeff Pires (Switzerland)

Following a 24-hour layover due to winter weather, I arrived at WHO HQ in Geneva the morning of Feb 5.  I was immediately swept up in the whirlwind of activity and hit the ground running; by the afternoon, I was getting my arms around the wide variety of our products, workflows, portals, datasets, systems, and audiences.  At the time, I was amazed to find a GIS Team of only 3: a manager splitting time between Ebola Response and Polio initiatives, a consultant Project Manager also balancing multiple projects, and a single volunteer.  Another volunteer arrived from Australia the following week, boosting our total to 5, and solidifying our core team for what would become the next 2+ months.

WHO-Geneva Headquarters, Organisation Mondiale de la Sante

Our Team’s primary role was information visualization and delivery.  Our core recurring products included a weekly Map Journal released alongside the WHO Ebola Situation Report, and a suite of daily internal briefing maps.  In addition, we processed a significant number of ad-hoc requests from both internal and external parties.  We were also responsible for managing an ArcGIS Online Organization, an interactive Map Gallery, and an Open Data site – all of which were (at the time) somewhat defunct and disorganized with stale information and broken links.  Although the building blocks were present, we were far from being a hub to consolidate and share authoritative Ebola geo-data.  Underneath each of these elements was a complex landscape of inter-related architecture and processes; my immediate focus was to understand each of these components in order to repair and optimize our information delivery sites for both internal and external audiences.

As the days turned into weeks, I also found myself drawn into a variety of other efforts and initiatives.  Some of these included:

  • Acting as the GIS Liaison between WHO and other organizations & partners such as UNMEER, HDX, OSM, NetHope, and CDC;
  • Briefing WHO epidemiologists and iMMAP staff prior to field deployment about the status of GIS, how we could assist the field from HQ, and how they may be able to assist us from within the countries (e.g. standardizing data collection and reporting);
  • Supporting and empowering field personnel with data, tools, processes, and scripts, such as an automated process to export multiple jpgs/pdf’s from a series of mxd’s, and a process to automatically generate a file gdb of georeferenced images from a digital camera so they could immediately be viewed in ArcMap;
  • Building an automated ETL (extract-transfer-load) process to integrate Country Preparedness Indicators for use in a public-facing web app, detailing the preparedness level of priority countries at risk for an Ebola outbreak;
  • Investigating data management processes and establishing data quality/integrity checks and corrections; for instance, a report that highlights Laboratories and Ebola Treatment Centers with valid geometry but invalid attribute data or vice versa (authoritative geometry and its associated attribute data are maintained in separate systems);
  • Developing a prototype Operational Dashboard for internal audiences, illustrating the status of our resource deployments to the field; and
  • Developing and documenting a rudimentary process to leverage an ESRI prototype “generic geocoder” to assist with establishing valid geometries and hierarchies for unstandardized datasets.

However, one of our greatest accomplishments was initiated by Leslie and evolved into a true collaborative effort between GISCorps, WHO, UNMEER, countries, and volunteers.  The administrative boundary update was challenging from every aspect, but once complete, it provided much-needed consistency and clarity for lower-level boundaries.  Once we had successfully injected the new data into our main geodatabase and cascaded it out to other systems, this effort finally allowed us to visualize and share Ebola case data for Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone on a common platform, with finer detail than ever possible before.

Ebola Response update meeting in the WHO-Geneva auditorium

In late March, ESRI staff joined us on-site to help solidify our architecture, the Map Gallery, and our Open Data site.  Working together, we were able to overhaul and update each component.  Although there still remains work to be done, presently these sites are in much better condition, now reflecting current information, an improved user experience, better maintenance processes, and optimized underlying architecture.

Prior to my departure in mid-April, our attention began shifting to sustainability and repeatability.  A GIS Working Group was established with the intent to raise awareness, gather needs, and to justify an enduring GIS Team, rather than continuing the current model of fragmented GIS support for various initiatives across WHO.  In addition, as this is not the last time our world will be faced with the threat of a pandemic, we began incorporating the great work and lessons learned from the Ebola Response effort into Standard Operating Procedures.  We need to be better prepared for the next time – particularly in the critical early stages of mobilization, where rapid response with common standards and procedures is vital.

My emergency response experience prior to this mission consisted entirely of major storm response efforts (typically hurricanes and blizzards) while working for an electric and gas utility in the northeast US.  As the mission progressed, I was amazed to find how similar the workflows and challenges were for our Ebola Response GIS Team at WHO HQ, and a utility GIS group on the other side of the world.  Understaffing.  Tight deadlines. Incomplete, inaccurate, inaccessible, and inconsistent data.  Multiple audiences – authorities, analysts, media, field workers, governments – each with their own needs, interests, and expectations on how information should be made available to them.  And of course, a seemingly endless stream of ad-hoc requests.  Recognizing these common themes allowed me to borrow some techniques from the GIS utility world, and apply them in Geneva to our Ebola Response efforts.  However, what truly moved and encouraged me throughout this mission were the people.  Despite working exhausting hours for not just days, not even weeks, but for months at a time – the energy, motivation, and dedication shared by everyone under our common goal was genuinely inspiring.

Emmanuel B. A. Lansana (Sierra Leone)

When Ebola struck the sub-region in February 2014, the whole world was not prepared to take on this scourging enemy. The disease quickly spread in Guinea, Liberia and then in Sierra Leone. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak an International Health Emergency in August 2014. In an effort to combat the disease, authorities in Sierra Leone called for a three-day national lockdown from September 19 – 21.

hile under lockdown, I decided I could find a way to contribute to the fight against this deadly disease. So I quickly deployed an instance of Ushahidi calling it MapEbola 2014 (see screenshot of the instance below) and blogged about it on September 18.


I wrote a proposal to the then Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) offering my free services to help them capture what was happening and exactly where. Rather unfortunately, this offer was never considered.

Getting recruited by GISCorps in December 2015 finally gave me an opportunity to realize my dreams. I happily joined the UNMEER Information Management team on 6th February after a one-day orientation at the WHO Head office in Freetown. The GIS team there was left over by Map Action who developed various map templates consuming data from an Excel spreadsheet. I was told the templates were adopted as final and cascaded to Liberia and Guinea. Maps produced from these templates, mainly capturing 42­, 21­, 14­ and 7­day Ebola cases, were uploaded daily to the Ebola GeoNode website. My long dream of doing detailed case-by-case mapping with this platform was however far-fetched due the fact that cases were only recorded at district level instead of community level.

Nonetheless, some other significant achievements were made. In an effort to build the capacity of various partner organizations concerned with the Ebola response, we organized a workshop for about 70 people from 16 different Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) as well as national and international Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) around the country. The workshop focused on two key Open Source applications: Quantum GIS (QGIS) for basic map production/GIS analyses and Open Data Kit (ODK) for mobile data collection. Relevant topics were covered in each case.

I was also asked to help with writing a report for the Weekly Ebola District Digest (WEDD) which came out every Wednesday morning. This report focused on new hotspots in various districts, security issues, efforts made to contain the disease, challenges faced in the field and so on. It provided useful information for the Coordinator of the National Ebola Response Centre (NERC), His Excellency the President of Sierra Leone and several other stakeholders.

Another thing that was worth undertaking was a story map for our fallen heroes. Sierra Leone has lost very prominent doctors to Ebola which was worth documenting. The country has so far lost eleven senior and prominent medical doctors to Ebola. There was sadly no single platform documenting the passing away of those frontline medical doctors as well as their colleagues who stayed behind to deliver basic healthcare services. So before my assignment ended, I did a story map to document the death of these fallen soldiers. Sierra Leone will forever mourn their death.


Over  the  past  few  months,  there  were  substantial  requests  for  data  at  the  lowest administrative levels, in our case, the Chiefdom (Admin4) level. Unfortunately, however, at the start of the outbreak Ebola cases were recorded at national level, then starting a few months later at district (Admin3) level. It was then difficult to get chiefdom level data dating back to the start of the outbreak. I would recommend that for such emergencies, overwhelming though they may seem initially, efforts should be made to collect fine level data right from the start.


I want to take this opportunity to thank David and Shoreh who gave me and my colleagues the opportunity to contribute to this global fight. It took them a great deal of effort to do all the ground work and the postings. Sometimes one might be tempted to ask ‘what is GISCorps doing to help…’ but believe me they are doing far more than one can ever imagine. They are doing a marvelous job behind the scenes for which I doff my hat to them. And to my colleagues – Charleen, Leslie and Jeff – it was my pleasure working with you all on this project.

About Our Volunteers

Charleen Gavette (Liberia): Charleen has a MS in Geography and over 20 years experience in GIS. She also has had a career as a Clinical Nurse and from this has a good understanding of medical data. Currently she is the GIS Coordinator for the National Marine Fisheries Service in California. She has developed several ArcGIS Online maps including a Journal Map, and also has developed a Google Map/Fusion table application.

Emmanuel B.A. Lansana (Sierra Leone): Emmanuel has a MS in Geoinformatics and a 6 years experience in GIS. He lives in Sierra Leone and has volunteered his time already to build a Ushahidi platform for reporting Ebola cases, and an ArcGIS Online map displaying social media data related to the outbreak. Currently he lives in Freetown where he is the Geological Data and Information Manager for the National Minerals Agency.

Leslie Zolman (Ghana): Leslie has a MS in GIS and is a certified Geographic Information Systems Professional (GISP) with 9 years experience. She has worked with ArcGIS Online since its introduction and received an ESRI Special Achievement in GIS Award for her ArcGIS Online work. Leslie currently is the GIS Coordinator for Montana Department of Commerce, Census & Economic Information Center, where she manages the agency’s ArcGIS Online account. She also serves as president of the Montana Association of Geographic Information Professionals.

Jeff Pires (Geneva): Jeff has a BA in Earth Science, a Graduate Certificate in Geo-Information Science, and is a certified Geographic Information Systems Professional (GISP) with 12 years experience. He won an ESRI Special Achievement in GIS Award for his ArcGIS Online work. Currently he works as a Lead Analyst in Asset Strategy at National Grid, where he administers a 1000-user ArcGIS Online Organization and develops GIS applications for emergency response and asset management.

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