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Putting vulnerable people on the map

Cutting-edge spatial data is giving people their basic human rights

6 September 2018

In a small, self-sufficient village in Afghanistan, hundreds of miles from the closest town, inhabitants go about their lives in much the same way as they always have. But all that could be about to change.

Unique research being carried out at the University of Southampton is putting these previously unknown communities on the map for the first time and, in doing so, giving people access to the most basic of human rights.

As a result, aid can be supplied during natural disasters, more people can vote in elections and vaccination programmes can be mobilised. The fact that these communities have now been counted means they can be cared for, and that discovery has come from work led by Southampton academic Professor Andy Tatem and his team.

Mapping vulnerable populations

It was 15 years ago when Andy first recognised the value of integrating satellite, census and survey data to map population distributions in low-income countries. Out of that idea grew the WorldPop programme - a research group that develops new methods for geospatial data integration to improve the demographic evidence base for low- and middle-income countries.

Andy returned to Southampton in 2013, having previously completed his PhD here, to further grow the WorldPop programme alongside co-directing the newly established Flowminder Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation with a mission to operationalise and scale research methods in support of vulnerable populations.

For governments to be able to deliver interventions, vaccines or plan elections they need to know how many people they have, where they are living and their characteristics, such as their age and gender.

Professor Andy Tatem - Professor within Geography and Environment

Making a difference in the real world

Thanks to the success of the WorldPop and Flowminder programmes, Southampton is one of the first places governments and aid agencies turn to in the event of a natural disaster. The ability to accurately map the displacement of populations is a huge benefit when delivering aid, and ensures that it reaches those who need it most.

Andy says: “We were very much involved following the earthquakes in Nepal and Haiti as we had ongoing agreements with mobile phone operators and existing partnerships with UN response agencies.

“When those events happen there is general chaos and huge numbers of people typically leave the most affected areas to find safety elsewhere,” he explains. Using these data they were able to produce displacement estimates for aid agencies within five days following the Nepal earthquake in 2015.

Meeting the global challenge

It is not just crisis work that WorldPop and Flowminder have been involved in. Low-income countries and emerging developing countries are also working with the team. Most recently, Andy presented findings to the Afghan President and his cabinet in Kabul, having carried out a thorough remapping of their country’s population in a bid to encourage more equitable distribution of aid and improved vaccination plans.

Andy explains: “For governments to be able to deliver interventions, vaccines or plan elections they need to know how many people they have, where they are living and their characteristics, such as their age and gender.

“In northern Nigeria, a vaccination programme focused on eliminating polio ran out of doses in some places and did not have enough because they were relying on outdated and inaccurate census data. We worked to integrate satellite mapping of settlements with ground surveys to provide more reliable estimates that are now the basis for vaccination planning.”

More information about Andy's research

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