Humanitarian Aid for Kosovo Guided by GIS

The key GIS function in the airdrop operation was the production of highly customized mapping of each flight plan and target zone for the air crews.During the Kosovo conflict an estimated 600,000 ethnic Albanian people were displaced within Kosovo. About 50,000 people were hiding out in mountainous areas away from Serb forces, but also away from all supplies. There were reports of deaths from malnutrition and starvation among the vulnerable sections of these communities. In response, a program of humanitarian airdrops was initiated by the New York-based International Rescue Committee. This program was funded by the United States Agency for International Development's Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (USAID/OFDA).

The undertaking involved daily (early each morning) flights from Pescara in Italy into Kosovo, to provide supplies to the areas that United Nations ground aid could not reach. The cargo of special humanitarian daily rations (high in protein and carbohydrates) was then dropped from privately hired freight planes, using specially constructed roller systems in the payload area.

These missions started on June 2, 1999, with the first flight dropping a cargo of bright yellow leaflets advising the refugees that food rations and emergency supplies were on the way. The leaflets were printed in Albanian, Serbo-Croatian, and English, and also advised refugees to stay under cover when the planes passed overhead. While the ration packs were especially designed to minimize injury when dropped from the air, the mission required an unusually high altitude for the drop to ensure the safety of the Moldovan air crews.

Crews were provided with a detailed topographic mapping of the drop zone.GIS has been recognized as playing an increasingly important role in disaster management, and to this effect USAID is building the capacity to appoint GIS specialists to disaster assessment and response teams. In this instance they were supplied with a laptop loaded with ArcView GIS 3.1, ArcView Spatial Analyst, and data from the U.S. National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA). The key GIS function in this operation was the production of highly customized mapping of each flight plan and target zone for the air crews. The crews were given a new map each day showing details such as the cargo weight, the drop coordinates, the call sign, and radio frequencies for the day, as well as the precise route and locations of emergency landing sites. These maps were produced using ArcView GIS and provided to the crews in hard-copy format. Each had to be checked for accuracy of information and approved by the flight planner prior to takeoff. At the same time the crews were also provided with detailed topographic mapping of the drop zone, showing the terrain around the site and the location of towns and villages. The relief information was displayed using a U.S. terrain elevation model, DTED, which was colored according to elevation and hill shaded to provide extra information about the slope.

It was vitally important that the maps were accurate and that the crews completely trusted the information. This point was brought home by the warning notice at the top of each flight planning map simply stating "Aircraft deviating more than 5 nautical miles from this flight path risk misidentification and targeting by NATO forces." The crews were experienced but not familiar with GIS or the concept of creating custom maps on the fly. At first the crews were resistant to the idea of using a map produced by a computer instead of the traditional maps they were familiar with, but they became convinced of the benefits of producing maps with information specific to their mission. For example, they were supplied with maps that had a larger number of spot heights and more detailed contouring around their particular drop zone. In other words, it was important to provide the pilots with information that they were used to handling but which also provided the advantages of the digital map sources.

Maintaining the accuracy of information on the maps was made increasingly difficult by the hours the teams were forced to work. To fit in with NATO scheduling, the flights left Italy around 4:00 a.m. daily, and the potential for last-minute changes meant the maps had to be updated between 2:00 a.m. and 3:30 a.m. The working day often consisted of a number of short shifts (up to four hours), followed by similar length breaks. The use of ArcView GIS software's tools for creating map templates allowed the time-consuming data entry procedures to be significantly reduced.

The maps provided a common language for communicating with crews who spoke mostly Russian. GIS, in fact, became the common language. This feature of communication that used geography as a language was also highlighted by the fact that NIMA produced detailed maps and a gazetteer of place names (NIMA's Kosovo and Environs Geographic Names Index approved by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names) for the whole of Kosovo and environs, as places were referred to by different people using English, Albanian, and Serb-Croatian spellings. Produced at the request of USAID and the U.S. Department of State, these products can be downloaded from OFDA's Web site ( The Humanitarian Response Planning Map: Kosovo 1998 was also produced using ArcView GIS and was distributed in digital and hard copy to all humanitarian organizations responding to this crisis.

Maps displayed pie charts of daily meal rations.GIS was also used to map and monitor the amount of aid that had been dropped in the preceding days. A map was created showing the outline of Kosovo, and at each target location was a pie chart divided into areas representing the proportions of daily meal rations and high energy biscuits. The total size of the pie chart then represented the metric tonnage of rations that had been dropped by the missions so far. This showed which areas had been targeted heavily and which had not received aid in the last few days.

In addition, in Pristina, Kosovo, the Humanitarian Community Information Center has been established with a significant portion of its mission being the coordination of GIS data collection and dissemination. This center is combining everything from locations of unexploded ordnance to places of worship into decision support products and hopes to be a template for the future of information management in humanitarian crisis.

For more information contact Simon Cottingham, GIS Consultant, Esri (UK) Ltd., 23 Woodford Road, Watford, Hertfordshire WD1 1PB, United Kingdom (tel.: 44-1923-210450, E-mail: or Nate Smith, United States Agency for International Development (E-mail:

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