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Mapping Project Aids Disaster Preparedness and Response

By Natalie Bannon

Before Typhoon Ruby hit the Philippines in early December, The United Methodist Church was already prepared to provide shelter from the storm thanks, in part, to a mapping program spearheaded by United Methodist Communications.

For more than a decade, United Methodists have been able to easily locate churches throughout the U.S. using the denomination’s Find-A-Church online database – a ministry of United Methodist Communications.

Last year, the Information and Communications Technology for Development (ICT4D) team from United Methodist Communications and their partners, began adding international churches throughout the central conferences to the map – including those in all three episcopal areas of the Philippines – using software from Ushahidi, a non-profit tech company.

April Mercado, special projects manager for ICT4D church initiatives based in the Philippines for United Methodist Communications, says that placing these local churches on the map not only benefits those looking for a place to worship or join in ministry, it is also crucial in times of crisis. She said all churches in the path of the recent typhoon were mapped before it made landfall in the area.

“Our churches in the disaster-affected regions here in the Philippines are open to everyone,” said Mercado. “Some are evacuation centers and others are staging grounds for relief packing and food distribution. This is beneficial to the community members where our churches are located. This is also beneficial to responders who are looking for survivors and displaced families so that they can send in their relief.”

Each episcopal area has one person designated to plot the exact locations of every church. They also add details such as the pastor’s name and the church’s district and annual conference information. During times of disaster, Mercado adds evacuation areas to the map.

Before Typhoon Ruby’s landfall, the Rev. Neelley Hicks, director of United Methodist Communications’ ICT4D church initiatives, reached out to Heather Leson at Ushahidi to see if anyone might need the church evacuation information that the church agency had collected. From there, Leson shared the data with Mark Cupitt at Humanitarian Open Street Map to distribute via their free, collaborative maps that are used for humanitarian work. The group effort ensured those in the path of the typhoon were prepared for evacuation and relief.

“Collaboration is key to us all making a difference,” said Heather Leson. “In times of crisis, when people share they can make a difference for humanitarians. The benefit is that if all this data is prepared in advance, then in times of crisis it can quickly be applied and shared.”

Mapping is nearing completion in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and work will in expand in 2015 to include other episcopal areas throughout the central conferences.