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GISCorps Helps United Nations High Commission for Refugees Map Resources for Refugees in Cairo, Egypt

By Mark Salling, GISCorps Core Committee

This past fall, Lori Quinn, from North Carolina, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission, was deployed to a UNHCR project that involved digitizing and geo-referencing resources in Cairo, Egypt, to support the protection and assistance activities of UNHCR for refugees in that city.

The UNHCR reported last fall that Egypt had approximately 88,000 refugees, about 17,500 of whom were receiving assistance from UNHCR. Approximately 70,000 were Palestinian refugees, though few of these were registered with the UNHCR. Among the UNHCR assisted refugees, the majority were from Sudan, followed by Somalia. With continued conflict and political uncertainty in these areas, including Darfur, and the additional inflow from Iraq, these numbers were on the rise. Cairo, particularly the poor quarters of the city, has been the primary destination for these refugees and the need to provide services there has put the UNHCR's assistance program under tremendous pressure.

One of the basic tasks of the agency is to locate resources related to education, health care, safety and security, and social services. Providing maps and other information on the locations of these important resources to a new community that is unfamiliar with their surroundings is one of the tasks of the GIS department at UNHCR, headquartered in Geneva Switzerland. The department is headed by Luc St. Pierre who is the Senior Geographic Information Systems Officer in the Field Information and Coordination Support Section of the Division of Operational Services.

The UNHCR had mapped and created an atlas of a number of assets that are helpful to the large refugee community in the city. Some agencies provided partial information and UNHCR came up with some intermediate solutions working not at the residential level, but more in terms of clusters or concentrations of refugee households. A final report would be made available to partners in providing assistance.

But other resources were found only on large format paper maps that had no geo-referenced system. The challenge in Cairo is the complete absence of an address system and no existing digital dataset of the street network.

One of the datasets UNHCR wanted to develop more accurately was geo-referenced schools, hospitals, and police stations in certain sectors of the city. This information was on about 25 large scale, originally CAD-produced, paper map drawings that were available at the UNHCR Branch Office in Cairo. They had no geo-referenced system. Six of them were scanned and delivered as tiff files to GISCorps. A portion of one is shown on Figure 1.

Figure 1

The method of capturing and geo-referencing the data from the maps was straightforward though repetitious. The location of schools and hospital buildings had been highlighted in shading or color on the scanned tiff files. Based on their relative position and shape, Lori identified these buildings visually from the high resolution Google Earth coverage of the Cairo area and then noted the Google Earth latitude and longitude coordinate pairs. She also added elevation. A point shape file was produced.

Initially, Lori completed the data capture from one of the six maps and sent the results to the UNHCR to verify that the process was providing the desired result. Once that was determined Lori implemented the procedure for the remaining five tiff maps. A final geo-reference layer of points was created for the buildings, approximately 500 in all.

The work of the UNHCR is critically important in helping innocent victims of war and conflict all over the world and GIS is part of the infrastructure necessary to that mission. We are proud of Lori as one of the volunteer GIS professionals who want to make a difference beyond their normal work lives. The GIS community is filled with such altruism and GISCorps is very pleased to help that quality make a difference in the world.

1. Refugee Trends, 1 January - 30 June 2006, Refugee Populations, New Arrivals and Durable Solutions in 95, Mostly Developing, Countries, 11 October 2006. Field Information and Coordination Support Section, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Geneva. Refugee Trends

[The mission]"... meant more than I can express. Even though it is a small piece of the bigger picture, I felt that I was finally able to do something that impacted people positively. I have always had an interest in helping those who have been displaced and torn from their lives and families. To be able to assist refugees, in even the smallest of ways, to get settled or back home was a perfect match for me."

Lori Quinn, GISCorps Volunteer