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USAID: All Hands on Open Data: Mapping the Famine

Press Release from USAID

USAID is starting to take a new approach to the data we release – from the types of data we release to the public, to the ways we actually release it.

On Monday we launched a new campaign to raise awareness about the crisis in the Horn of Africa and, with it, released a set of open-source maps. Sharing this data in an interactive format allows visitors to our site to visualize the crisis in a whole new way and will in turn, we hope, help to create new ideas and solutions for fighting famine and drought.

Today, we want to highlight some of the ways other organizations have used this data released by USAID.

If you have seen maps of the drought and subsequent famine in the Horn of Africa, including those from our FWD campaign, they probably include color-coded areas that show the extent and severity of crisis. The areas hardest hit by the drought and famine are usually shown in a deep red color and concentrated in southern Somalia, in regions currently inaccessible to humanitarian assistance. You also may have seen maps showing a decline in vegetation and rainfall levels over the past year.

The files and data used to make many of these maps come from two USAID-funded programs called the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, or FEWS NET, and the Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit, or FSNAU. These two early warning systems use various data sources to provide timely and rigorous early warnings to the humanitarian community on emerging and evolving food security issues.

We are pleased to see that many organizations have used this data over the last several months to spread the word about the drought and the millions of people affected.

Yesterday the ONE Campaign launched a beautiful set of visualizations using FEWS NET and FSNAU data and, specifically, layers that that were developed and made open source for USAID’s FWD campaign. Working with Development Seed, the ONE Campaign added great features like a time slider to show the progression of the crisis and a tracker for donor country financial aid commitments.

InterAction, the largest alliance of U.S.-based international non-governmental organizations, recently launched NGO AID Map to track member projects responding to the famine. Their tag line is “Who is Doing What, Where.” On Tuesday, they took the FEWS NET food insecurity data and overlaid members’ response efforts, allowing the viewer to see how the response and the crisis are aligned. The map is a powerful resource for educated donors.

A few weeks ago the United Nations World Food Program created a similar map on a page they call Battling Hunger in the Horn of Africa. Showing WFP programming over the drought and famine information, they add some key facts and figures to highlight the suffering and severity of the situation.

WFP also did a great job of making their map embeddable, which you can do by visiting their site.

Others have found additional ways of presenting FEWS NET data and creating maps and visualizations to help the public better understand the crisis. We were excited to see that ESRI, a geographic information systems software company, has launched MapStories, a series of maps designed to tell geographic stories about current events. They have recently released a set of maps to tell the story of the famine, and their use of FEWS NET drought and vegetation data is combined with stunning satellite imagery of refugee camps in Ethiopia. The Guardian’s excellent visualization work takes us into the refugee experience in the Dadaab camps in Kenya.

The data isn’t only useful in telling a story; it also saves lives. Because of the warnings from FEWS NET and FSNAU in the summer of 2010, USAID and the international community were alerted that the drought would be severe, and we were able to pre-position critical food and supplies in the region.

To learn more about the work that USAID is doing to open up famine-related data for visualizations, read our recent blog post or visit

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