IGARSS 2010 - 2010 IEEE International Geoscience and Remote Sensing Symposium - July 25 - 30, 2010 - Honolulu, Hawaii, USA

Community Remote Sensing: GISCorps - distributed quick reaction image and GIS analysis of Cyclone Nargis in Burma


Volunteer GIS and remote sensing activities, including both deployed and virtual support. In the virtual support model, GISCorps volunteers conduct analysis using their own systems and coordinate over the internet and through wikis to conduct remote projects. These include educational, development, and disaster response activities. In disaster response projects, the emphasis is on rapid response by having multiple persons around the world conduct analysis and coordinate their work via wikis. The goal is to provide rapid response analysis and completed products by using a cloud of volunteers around the world.


GISCorps started in October 2003 in Atlanta, Georgia, when the URISA Board unanimously approved it as an initiative of URISA. GISCorps volunteers' services will help to improve the quality of life by:

  • Supporting humanitarian relief.
  • Enhancing environmental analysis.
  • Encouraging/fostering economic development.
  • Supporting community planning and development.
  • Strengthening local capacity by adopting and using information technology.
  • Supporting health and education related activities.

GISCorps implements URISA's vision of advancing the effective use of spatial information technologies and makes available highly specialized imagery/GIS expertise to improve the well being of developing and transitional communities without exploitation or regard for profit.  GISCorps coordinates the open exchange of volunteer GIS expertise cooperatively among and along with other agencies.


A few days after the Cyclone Nargis hit various areas of Myanmar (Burma) on May 2, 2008, Einar Bjorgo, the Head of Rapid Mapping, Applications and User Relations of UNOSAT, the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) Operational Satellite Applications Programme, contacted GISCorps and shortly after that, submitted a request for 20 volunteers.

Based on the request, a job description was developed and on May 9th, 2008, a call for volunteers was sent out to various groups and list serves. Shortly after that, emails started pouring in and Core Committee member, Ingrid Bruce, who had taken charge of the recruitment process, selected 20 volunteers for the project in less than 48 hours.

Out of 20 volunteers, 11 of them who had remote expertise began working, under the direction of Tom Ponte, a GISCorps volunteer from Oregon. They were tasked with performing change detection analysis for various features such as: roads, buildings, bridges, monasteries, and etc. from Google Earth environment.

The team also collected features such as roads and bridges from pre-disaster imagery. However, most of the features in phase one were collected from post-disaster imagery. Two examples were Destroyed Buildings and Villages.

As of May 21st, GISCorps volunteers contributed over 400 hours in collecting over 6,500 features from Google Earth interface. Most of these features are collected from post-disaster imagery. The second phase of the project started on May 22nd and the task was to collect all the buildings in the delta region as they existed prior to the cyclone and from pre-disaster imagery.

On May 21st, UNOSAT requested another twenty volunteers to collect additional data in the delta region. As in phase one, GISCorps started the recruitment process and 20 volunteers were selected once again within 48 hours and 18 of them are currently collecting additional features from pre-disaster imageries. As of June 10th 2008, the second group of volunteers have contributed over 900 hours into this mission and collected over 54,000 features.

One of our volunteers who worked on both phases is U Win of Burmese decent who in addition to actively collecting various features for the project, has also compiled some photos and other images from the disaster and from different sources that were placed on the project wiki for use as ground truth data.

All work was conducted by the individuals using their own computers, Google Earth, and the internet. Data were quality checked by a second individual before being accepted. The data were then compiled onto image maps by UNOSAT, and made available over the internet to relief workers as rapidly as possible, including the Humanitarian Information Centre in Bangkok and the Myanmar Information Management Unit in Yangon. 

Overall 31 GISCorps volunteers participated in this project and collectively they contributed over 1,300 hours and digitizing over 60,000 features in the delta region. Though this mission was one of its first kind for GISCorps - an emergency response mission conducted fully on remote basis - the outcome helped many humanitarian organizations in a variety of applications.


At the conclusion of the first phase, the UNOSAT Project Manager, Einar Bjorgo, expressed their organization's appreciation as follows:

"GISCorps is really helping towards making a difference here."

"....what I can say is that the work done by GISCorps is very highly appreciated by the actors in the field, both as input to our maps, but also as standalone databases which they include in their various local GIS assessments. Every single volunteer should be proud of the work done and rest assured that the data are being used – and will continue to be used as we move into the reconstruction phase of this disaster."


Project VolunteerScott Madry (madrys@email.unc.edu)
GISCorp Websitehttp://www.giscorps.org/
NYT Articlehttp://www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2008/06/01/world/01myan.graphix.ready.html


Destroyed structures shown in Google Earth for a small area.

A completed UNOSAT map based on GISCorps work, made available on the internet to relief workers.

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