Mobile geographical information systems (GIS) have proved their worth in the wake of the December 26 tsunami in Asia.
Immediately after the event, US GIS vendor ESRI formed a response team and set up a web site to coordinate information. As part of this, consultant Gde Agung, a native Balinese, was sent to Aceh, the worst-hit area in Indonesia, to help the Ministry of Health there develop its information structures and identify strategic facilities and available resources.
Agung has since been seconded to New Zealand, where he is working for ESRI distributor Eagle Technology.
"So much aid was coming in from around the world that the government was overwhelmed, and coordination was lacking," he says. "It was critical that they were better informed, so they could distribute resources."
Aceh, he says, was flat as far as the eye could see after the tsunami.
Digitising old paper maps
"The challenge was that there was no data to start with. The only resource available was a paper topographical map that was 40 years old.
"I went to a mapping agency in Jakarta and found that people from other agencies, such as the World Health Organisation, were ordering maps. We could immediately see we all needed to be much more coordinated."
Agung took the 40-sheet map back to Bali where he digitised it as a continuous map. He contacted other sources to include old maps that had partial views of major highways and some satellite images.
"I then showed the base map I’d created to the army. They were the only ones who had access on the ground. They were happy with it.
"We needed mobile computing units, so we sent a request to ESRI. One of their business partners, Thales, responded immediately and we received nine ArcPads within three days."
The ArcPad is a mobile GIS unit, with a GPS, that runs on Windows CE.
Updating the information
The Ministry of Health then allocated field officers to gather base information and then update the attributes. This may have included, for example, the position of a temporary clinic, the number of doctors there, the status of drugs and the kind of operations being performed.
Agung says the communications infrastructure was not capable of allowing the field officers to report online, so flash cards were collected from them. The process is on-going. The central system is located in Jakarta.
Although he is now based in New Zealand, Agung gets regular SMS updates so he can monitor the performance of the system.