WHAT TO MAP: Integrating Geographic Information into Disaster Risk Reduction and Management

by Ma. Simeona Martinez [1] and Pryor Aldous Placino [2] of the Philippine Geographical Society

Central to enhancing the adaptive capacities of local communities in relation to the occurrence of disasters is the promotion of awareness on the characteristics of hazards as well as their constitutive geographies and impacts. The collection of up-to-date and accurate spatial information and their availability in the different phases of a disaster should be integrated into every level of decision-making to ensure that affected communities increase their resilience.

In a span of a decade (1997 to 2007), there have been 13,155 deaths and economic losses of P158 billion due to the impacts of tropical storms in the Philippines. Within the period 1990-2006, an estimated 0.5% of the annual GDP equals to the cost of direct damages caused by disasters (NDRRMC, n.d., p. 1). Floods, lahar, landslides rockslides and debris avalanche were the hazards that had huge and lasting impacts in communities in the Philippines from 2005 until 2009 (Lagmay ,n.d., p. 2)Only recently Typhoons Sendong (2011), Pablo (2012), and Yolanda (2013) claimed a total of more or less 9,600 lives altogether (dela Cruz,  2014). Such losses and casualties would have been prevented if the risks associated with disasters were properly addressed and managed in a more proactive manner – integrating preventive measures such as appropriate land use planning, promotion of sustainable management practices, participatory planning, among other strategies into disaster risk reduction and management (DRRM) plans.

With the aim of increasing the resilience of communities to disasters and reducing their vulnerabilities, the National Disaster Reduction and Management Framework was approved in 2011. It envisions a country of “safer, adaptive and disaster-resilient Filipino communities toward sustainable development” (NDRRMC, n.d.). The national plan that ensued from this framework, entitled National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Plan (NDRRMP), covers four thematic areas, namely: (1) Disaster Prevention and Mitigation; (2) Disaster Preparedness; (3) Disaster Response and (4) Disaster Rehabilitation and Recovery. The said plan also explicitly identifies the need for hazard and risk mapping as a priority project in high risk areas.


Critical decisions and actions during the response phase of a disaster are drawn based on available spatial information.  Beyond disaster response, spatial information is necessary in promoting geographic awareness in relation to the risks and impacts of disasters. It is important for people at risk of the effects of disasters to understand what spatial, physical, and social conditions constitute their vulnerability and come up with strategies toward risk reduction. In addition, they should be able to tap and cultivate available and potential human and material resources to increase their preparedness and resiliency.

Similar to crisis management needs, DRRM requires specific geographic data in each phase of the management cycle. In the response phase,“ immediate access to information and resources to determine and organize a rapid response” (Roche, Propeck-Zimmermann, and Mericskay, 2013, p. 31, citing Williams et al., 2000) is called for to ensure timely assistance to affected families such as livelihood support and provision of basic services. In the prevention and mitigation phase, reconstruction feedback and post-disaster inventory are deemed necessary. The list below includes some of the important elements of disaster risk reduction measures that may also be mapped and documented:

  • Land use or zoning
  • Monitoring, warning, and evacuation systems
  • Improved vegetation cover
  • Community resources and Disaster Management
    • Medical facilities
    • Food supplies
    • Water sources
    • Dwellings
    • Temporary shelters
    • Security facilities
    • Livelihood sources

It is therefore important to identify baseline spatial data (whether in analog or digital form) that can be used to derive information about the geography of the place in relation to any type of hazard. For mapping and spatial analysis of any hazard for the purpose of, but not limited to, vulnerability or damage assessment, the following spatial data* would be necessary:

  • Profile of the area: topography, bathymetry, coastline shape and properties
  • Natural hazards: characteristics, frequency of occurrence, extent of hazard
  • Exposure: location and characteristics of exposed communities – e.g., location of residential structures, critical facilities like schools, roads, and medical facilities, and their characteristics (e.g., type of materials used for construction, year of construction, critical contents such as volatile substances, etc.)
  • Vulnerability: spatially located demographic information (e.g., persons with disability in a household, type of materials used to build the house, etc)

*lifted and modified from Scott and Simpson, 2009


Different mapping techniques can be done to get preliminary data from the field. One can use a combination of different mapping methods to triangulate information. Considerations for which mapping method to use depend on the availability of resources, the capability of personnel to do such mapping activity, and the accuracy of required data and information.

Sketch Maps
If no published map is available, sketch maps derived from fieldwork can be a preliminary source of information. These maps can show the different features of the place including paths, edges, nodes, districts and landmarks. They can also present the locations of various resources, activities, settlements, opportunities, and threats. One’s personal and psychological representation of places and locations can be drawn using different media. Sketch maps can be hand-drawn or can make use of what is available in the area. If mapping is done in coastal areas, beaches can be used as canvass while shells, stones, twigs, or fallen tree leaves can be used as markers. More nuanced information about a place can be generated if the sketch mapping is to be participated in by different members of the community. Participants can do instant triangulation and validation of the placement of geographic features while drawing the sketch map.


Figure 1. Sketching the boundary and formulating the legend and symbols are necessary preparations for participatory mapping. Photo source: Department of Geography and Flora and Fauna International Philippines (2012). Coastal Resources and Fisheries Profile: Agta Dumagat Community in Barangay San Marcelino, General Nakar, Quezon.


Participatory three-dimensional mapping is a method of incorporating geographic information on a scaled relief map or model built with locally available materials such as cartons or rubber sheets.  This participatory process involves local communities, scientists, local government units, and other stakeholders to “facilitate the integration of scientific and local knowledge and the participation of a large array of stakeholders in the CBDRR (Community-based Disaster Risk Reduction)” (Gaillard and Maceda, 2009, p. 110).   A relief map is appropriately scaled to allow for features such as buildings, houses, land use and infrastructures to be identified and marked by using pushpins and yarns. These materials serve as the medium for depicting geographic information that are helpful in DRRM planning. Livelihood sources, materials used for building houses and infrastructures and their condition, critical facilities, and the vulnerabilities of the community are identified and delineated in the map. Hazard-prone areas are also indicated in the model.


Figure 2. Participatory 3D mapping in Masantol, Pampanga, in August 2009. Photo credit: Jean-Christophe Gaillard

In the P3DM activities led by Dr. Jean-Christophe Gaillard, renown geographer and disaster management expert, between 2007 and 2009 (Gaillard and Maceda, 2009) in the towns of Divinubo (Eastern Samar), Masantol (Pampanga) and Dagupan (Pangasinan) and in 2011 in Yubo (Negros Occidental), the participants were composed of scientist facilitators, local government representatives, local peoples organizations (POs), Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) as well as youth representatives. These stakeholders were involved in the generation of geographic information as well as in the discussion of disaster mitigation measures during the DRR planning stage of the process. They also talked about specific actions that would address disaster-related concerns such as structural reinforcements and crisis management.


Figure 3.  Participatory 3D map of the village of Yubo, La Carlotta, in January 2011. Image source : http://www.preventionweb.net/files/workspace/7935_cadaggaillardp3dm.pdf

P3DM also facilities a more detailed description of hazards. In Masantol for instance, local participants were able to distinguish three types of floods which impact different areas: river floods, rain-fed floods, and tidal floods (Gaillard and Maceda, 2009). Through the Geographic Information Systems or GIS, the contents of the participatory 3Dmaps were used to update spatial information in previous maps of the area.

VGI (Volunteered Geographic Information)

Volunteered Geographic Information was coined by Michael Goodchild, Emeritus Professor of Geography at the University of California, Santa Barbara, to describe user-generated geographic information contributed on a voluntary basis (Castelein et al. 2010; Neis and Zielstra, 2014). The contributed spatial data is managed in a database and are mostly freely available to other users through Internet access. Inputting them in a database often requires computers and other georeferenced data such as aerial or satellite imagery, or handheld devices equipped with GPS (Global Positioning System) capabilities or digital maps for recording the location of geographic features (Neis and Zielstra, 2014).  OpenStreetMap or OSM can be considered as the largest and most popular VGI for different mapping purposes. In the Philippines, OSM was an integral platform for global humanitarian efforts to assist communities impacted by the Bohol earthquake in October 2013 and those affected by Typhoon Yolanda in November 2013. In anticipation of Yolanda’s impact in November 2013, OSM’s HOT (Humanitarian OSM Team) and other volunteer groups organized several mapathon (mapping marathon) and crowdmapping activities to document pre- and post-disaster features such as buildings and infrastructures in Tacloban City. With over 1,000 volunteers from more than 80 countries, updated maps were able to provide useful information such as damaged or collapsed buildings as well as inaccessible roads. Both freelance relief and rescue operators and those working with organizations such as the American Red Cross  and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs used these spatial information in their respective disaster-related intervention activities. The Department of Geography in UP Diliman in partnership with OSM also hosted a Tacloban mapathon on November 15, almost a week after the first landfall of Typhoon Yolanda in Guiuan.


Figure 4. OSM-facilitated Yolanda Mapathon held at the Geography GIS Laboratory on November 15, 2013.

A detailed map of the damages brought about by Typhoon Yolanda that was based on OSM data was published in the New York Times on November 11, 2013. Please click the link: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/11/11/world/asia/typhoon-haiyan-map.html?_r=0


In February 2012, the government announced the availability of geohazard maps that were published by the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) following a nationwide survey and assessment of the susceptibility of particular areas in the Philippines to floods, landslides and soil erosion, and flash floods (ESSC, 2012). These maps are listed at the MGB webpage (http://www.mgb.gov.ph/lhmp.aspx) and are viewable through Map Central, the first Philippine online map launched in 2001. A more comprehensive collection of spatial information relevant to DRRM can be accessed from the Department of Science and Technology – Project NOAH (Nationwide Operational Assessment of Hazard), such as 6-hour lead time warning to areas vulnerable to flooding as well as predicted storm surge heights, rain forecast and flood inundation maps (see http://noah.dost.gov.ph/). Other than utilizing maps for visualizing hazards through its website, Project NOAH also disseminates information through social media such as Twitter and Facebook. A mobile application called ARKO was also developed by the project to assist users in visualizing flood scenarios within a 2.5km radius from their location.

Another government initiative on utilizing spatial geographic information for DRRM was the implementation of a series of training activities for local government units in October of 2014 on the use of OSM and InaSAFE, a tool which allows users to derive estimates of population and properties that are exposed to hazards. Through the initiative of the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG), three LGUs participated in these trainings with support from actors such as the World Bank – East Asia Pacific, Environmental Science for Social Change, Project NOAH, OSM Philippines Community, GeoRepublic Japan, and HOT (IBRD-WB, 2014, p. 38). These were the towns of Candaba, Lubao, and Guagua of Pampanga. In addition, Project NOAH has adopted the InaSAFE functionalities into their WebSAFE tools which is part of version 2 of the Project NOAH website (Lagmay et al., 2013).

The National Mapping and Resource Information Authority (NAMRIA), the central mapping agency of the Philippines, conducts nationwide surveys and topographic base mapping in the country. Through the Philippine Geoportal-DRRM Map web application, the agency integrates data from various government agencies and projects into public online interactive maps pertaining to the various hazards that threaten different parts of the country (see http://www.geoportal.gov.ph/apps/drrm/).

Lastly, local government units are the best sources of local geographic information. Many LGUs, however, still face the challenge of maximizing the use of spatial data for disaster risk reduction. Inan assessment conducted by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) on Climate Change and Disaster Risk Reduction in the Philippines, one of the identified key issues was the inadequate capacity of line agencies and LGUs to assume their functions This include “duplication of efforts in providing hazard and risk information to LGUs, lack of disaggregated data on historical disaster damage and losses, and lack of capacity to conduct vulnerability and risk assessments” (ADB, 2011, p. 3). In one of the trainings conducted in 2013 by the faculty of the UP Diliman Department of Geography in five provinces in the Philippines [3], workshop participants from seven municipalities in Quezon confirmed the availability at the local level of data such as barangay hazard maps, location of evacuation sites, flood susceptibility maps and land use maps, but that municipal level spatial data such as maps from the Comprehensive Land Use Plans (CLUPs) and those facilitated by other agencies such as the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) or national offices such as PHIVOLCS are not in their possession or are in closed format (e.g., image or jpeg). This makes it difficult for users of data processing software such as the Geographic Information System (GIS) to integrate such data into the geographic information they have at hand. A recent article published at the SciTech section of GMA News Online that was written by David Jonathan Garcia, an Environmental Planner and former faculty of UP Diliman Department of Geography, aptly describes the challenges encountered by disaster and development workers in the field because of the difficulty in acquiring open-format data from various government agencies (Garcia, 2015).

As the use of geographic information for DRRM continues to become integral in various phases of DRRM and as technology in analyzing spatial data and disseminating geographic information continues to improve, the “inclusiveness” and “participatory” nature of generating geographic information becomes more critical in levelling the power differentials among stakeholders in the DRRM process. Geography continues to be a relevant discipline amidst these challenges with its place-based, integrative approaches toward addressing the persistent issues of sustainability and resilience in our ever-changing world.

This article is an adaptation from a training module that was contributed by the authors to the “Strengthening the Capacity of Local Governments in Five Philippine Provinces to Undertake Integrated Community-Based Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Programs and Climate Change Adaptation Strategies” project.

1. OIC Chair for the Undergraduate Program, Department of Environment, College of Arts and Sciences, Miriam College and Senior Lecturer, UP Diliman Department of Geography
2. Formerly Assistant Professor, UP Diliman Department of Geography
3. The “Strengthening the Capacity of Local Governments in Five Philippine Provinces to Undertake Integrated Community-Based Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Programs and Climate Change Adaptation Strategies” project was led by Dr. DoracieZoleta-Nantes, geographer and former Fellow at the Resources, Environment & Development unit of the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australia National University. She was also an Adjunct Professor of the Geography Department in UP Diliman and President of the Philippine Geographical Society in 2007-2008.A video summarizing this project can be viewed from this link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K_-IHacZnVk.



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