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Advances in Science and Technology Helping WFP's Humanitarian Work

Satellites, radar, geomatics and geo-spatial data are not words that immediately spring to mind when a cyclone or earthquake strikes somewhere in the world.  Academics working in applied science and technology also don’t appear to have much to do with getting food to people affected by a natural disaster.  But – increasingly - they do.

WFP needs clear, precise information very quickly to know how to get help to where it is most needed.  It is getting much of it from a network of academic partnerships which it has created to take advantage of recent advances in science and technology.

Satellite imagery

Take satellite imagery.  With international protocols now in place to help humanitarian agencies access satellites and radar sensors, WFP and its partners – such as the ITHACA Institute of the Politechnic of Turin -- can now rapidly acquire images of where a tropical storm has made landfall, to see where bridges and roads have been damaged and where the grounds is so waterlogged that any further rainfall will make severe flooding inevitable. 

WFP and ITHACA used this imagery, and new analytical methodologies which have been developed alongside, to deliver help to the victims of the four typhoons which hit the Philippines in just over a month in the autumn of 2009.

That emergency struck largely rural areas of low population density, so WFP and ITHACA worked with low-resolution overview images – they needed a broad picture to draw up operational plans. 

Haiti earthquake

But the earthquake which devastated Haiti in January 2010 meant higher resolution images were needed for close up pictures of densely urbanised areas.  Images where one pixel represented an amazingly detailed half a metre on the ground were able to show each damaged building or blocked street.  ITHACA’s scientists then carried out a Rapid Impact Analysis – the computerised overlay mapping of key information to create a very immediate and easy-to-use picture. 

These maps showed WFP where to set up food distribution points as closely as it could to where displaced people were gathering (see photo above). When security became a concern they showed alternative safe and passable alternative routes for WFP to carry on with its job – getting food to the people who need it.

(Photos by WFP/Louis Hamann)