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Mapping: A Skill for the Future

by on July 30, 2014

This guest post also appears on K4Health

Authored by Lisa Mwaikambo of K4Health, Becky Wilkes of MEASURE Evaluation, and Nandini Jayarajan of K4Health

There is no denying the impact that the environment – natural and manmade – has on human development, economic development, and health. Just think about recent natural and manmade disasters such as Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines and Deepwater Horizon oil spill, recent studies on the impact of the built environment on crime and physical activity, and studies on the relationship of the distance to the nearest health facility and health outcomes of a particular community.

When speaking of the environment, maps often come to mind. According to John Tierney, “They [Maps] help us get around, see where we’re going, get a sense of what’s out there beyond our immediate vision, and so forth. For centuries, people have found maps useful in those ways.” Today, the usefulness of maps has expanded. For many of us, maps are an easier way to understand often complex data. A map can help us to better understand a situation and more effectively and efficiently plan programs and services, advocate for more resources for specific geographic-depressed areas, and raise awareness to important issues.

Better understand a situation

The following map helps the reader digest a number of different statistics at once and also to see how they vary across Mozambique. It allows comparison of related statistics: both numbers of maternal deaths and causes of death (Singh et al, 2014).


More effectively and efficiently plan programs and services

A common barrier to maternal health care in developing countries is the distance to nearest facility. Mapping software can collect and analyze data using GPS that captures current geographic relationships between health centers and target populations. Decision makers can then take this data to analyze which health centers need to be upgraded to include facilities for obstetric surgery, and which need to improve their ambulance and emergency transportation systems. This tool allows for long-term planning for barrier reduction to emergency medical support (Bailey et al. 2011).

Advocate for more resources for specific geographic-depressed areas

In Kenya, when common geographic identifiers where created to facilitate data-linking among several OVC (Orphans and Vulnerable Children) support programs, it became obvious that there was at least one portion of a province which, though it had a high percentage of its population living well below the poverty line, was not receiving the level of program support and financial aid that other portions of the province were receiving, and that this was having a severe negative effect on the number of orphans being served in that area (Spencer and Pill 2010).


Raise awareness to important issues

This last point makes me think of a powerful map that I came across that puts into perspective the population size of India and China compared to the rest of the world’s population. This map can be a powerful tool for raising awareness as to the importance of taking a more global view of the world’s issues.

Visualization through maps ground abstract information and translates data into powerful multi-sector advocacy and planning tools. I’m reminded of a powerful presentation that I attended at Switchpoint in Saxaphaw, NC this past April where John Crowley of the World Bank spoke about the importance of building relationships to collect and curate high quality data for mapping that answers or addresses a community need, defined by that community. He explained that “maps allow us to build a collective memory and leads to better decision making.”

Mapping was once thought of as a specialized skill, similar to people’s former perceptions of the use of Excel spreadsheets. But, now with open data and the various free and open source softwares available, mapping is becoming a tool that anyone and everyone can and should become familiar with and use. For an introductory course on how to get started with mapping, check out the new GIS Techniques for M&E of HIV/AIDS and Related Programs course on the USAID Global Health eLearning Center and MEASURE Evaluation’s M&E Learning Center.

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