Imagine a hotel complex. Next, transform hotel rooms into metal containers, scatter them out on a desert plain . Surround everything with a fence. Welcome to a UNHCR refugee camp. Every day, hundreds of new refugees are admitted to this camp. In a hotel, you would have to distribute rooms. In a refugee camp in Jordan, you have to allocate access to metal containers. Since excel sheets are the only tool you can use, your team becomes the bottleneck of the camp’s supply chain. What can you do?
Yahya Hassune from Jordan encountered this challenge when he worked for United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the refugee agency of the United Nations. He decided to map out shelter allocation in Azraq refugee camp using Geographic Information System (GIS) software, a tool that enables users to organise layers of data on maps. The initiative was highly successful. Container allocation could be handled much faster, while it became possible to visualize information on the number of tenants and the conditions of containers.
Azraq camp is currently home to 53,254 people, less than 0.01% of the 65.6 million globally displaced people. Humanity never recorded more displaced persons than it does right now. Refugee camps essentially have to be operated like little cities requiring excellent supply chain management. Beyond refugee camps, displaced people find shelter in local host communities that are even more difficult to reach and to supply than camps. The example of GIS usage in Azraq shows that UNHCR can dramatically increase efficiency by utilizing simple GIS tools.
UNHCR usage history of GIS dates back to 1998. The agency Pitney Bowes MapInfo mapped out existing refugee camps. By 2005, a formal GIS structure was established. This approach allowed map creation to ease strategic decisions. On an operational level, however, GIS tools still have a lot of potential. Unfortunately, development of GIS utilization in developing countries is still in its infancy.   Applications are developed without overarching plans for transnational integration.
Another successful UNHCR GIS application empowers refugees. The project RefuGIS was implemented in the Zaatari camp in Jordan. There, refugees have to deal with shortages of water, food and medical supply. RefuGIS was introduced through a training facility. It was the “first project wherein refugees are wholly involved in community decision-making processes, from emergency planning to infrastructure classification. By employing their newly acquired GIS skills, participants in RefuGIS can create the maps that support discussions about camp management and community engagement.”
The project was enabled by UNHCR Innovation Service. The team around this program was set up to capture, develop and communicate innovation. UNHCR lines out in its Strategic decisions 2017-2021, that it will “carry out an urgently needed simplification and streamlining of procedures, processes and tools, including in key areas of program, procurement, supply, and administration.” The organisation is aware that it needs to update its supply chain management, ideally through innovation from within.
Access to high-quality information remains vital for effective aid as crises in developing countries currently continue to unfold. One application UNHCR can focus on, is fuzzy analytic hierarchy process (FAHP). This process is essentially a spatial algorithm that allows organisations to address multiple criteria, such as social, geographical and other contributing factors, to manage supplies in UNHCR camps. Traditional GIS applications are based on a Boolean approach that only allows to use data based on classifications as true or false. FAHP works with data that can be based on further criteria, providing more options in mapping processes.
Further potential GIS applications to improve supply chain management are not limited to short-term crisis response situations. UNHCR frequently needs to develop plans to deal with the transition of emergency response plans into long-term strategies. A critical aspect is reconnection of urban areas to national supply chain interdependent critical infrastructure systems (SCICI). GIS applications are needed to make SCICI visible and understandable.
Organising data on maps through GIS tools is one aspect of the megatrend digitalisation. UNHCR has many operations in developing countries where data collection and organisation are still in the pipeline. Going forward, UNHCR should try to foster and lead change in its supply chain management through the usage of GIS tools.
Can you think of examples how UNHCR, a large international organization with many bureaucratic layers, could foster and spread innovative applications of GIS?
How can refugees and UNHCR use GIS tools to manage supply chains together?
Photo credits: Chris Herwig/Norwegian Refugee Council
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