UN-SPIDER: Supporting Disaster Management from Space

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Karte UN SPIDER, courtesy UN SPIDER

Natalie Epler and Michael Leitgab


United Nations Platform for Space-based Information

for Disaster Management and Emergency Response.

Vienna, Austria. Beijing, China. Bonn, Germany.

e-mail: Natalie.EPLER@unoosa.org

When natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, landslides or tsunamis strike, hundreds or even thousands of people are affected, their homes, farmland and infrastructure often destroyed. The major earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, the flood in Pakistan and other countries during 2010, as well as the annual cyclone and hurricane season have again demonstrated the devastating effects that such natural phenomena have on human life and property.

In order to optimize the deployment of emergency teams and their equipment to support response efforts to such disasters, the timely availability of up-to-date information is crucial. Information about the state of infrastructure, buildings, and safe areas is especially needed to coordinate an efficient response. Space technology can fill this information gap by providing reliable and rapid observation, communication and positioning tools, especially when critical on-the-ground infrastructure is damaged. For example, data and images from satellites are used to produce maps of disaster areas for overview information and damage assessment. Furthermore, satellite data can also be used for risk assessment as well as disaster mitigation and prevention, e.g. early warning or vulnerability mapping.

The world of disaster management and space-based technology is complex and potential users are still struggling to fully capture all information about the existence, availability and accessibility, quality, costs and timeliness of space-based data. Disaster management experts, national institutions and governments are sometimes not aware of the full potential of satellite technology and the benefit it offers for disaster and risk management. Therefore, the UN-SPIDER Programme was founded as a platform to bring institutions and practitioners together to share their knowledge and expertise, and to improve access to space-based information for disaster management. In the following, the mandate of UN-SPIDER, its global network, specific activities and the UN-SPIDER Knowledge Portal are described.

What is UN-SPIDER?

The United Nations Platform for Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response (UN-SPIDER) was established in 2006 by the United Nations General Assembly in its resolution 61/110. It is a program implemented by the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) and aims to fulfill the following mandate:

‰ÛÏEnsure that all countries and international and regional organizations have access to and develop the capacity to use all types of space-based information to support the full disaster management cycle.‰Û

To fulfil this mandate, UN-SPIDER provides a gateway to space information for disaster management, serves as a bridge to interlink the disaster management and space communities, and facilitates capacity-building and institutional strengthening.

Karte UN SPIDER, courtesy UN SPIDER

Courtesy UN SPIDER

The UN-SPIDER network

The UN-SPIDER core team is based in offices in Austria, Germany and China, and relies on a global network of Regional Support Offices (RSO) and National Focal Points (NFP).

UN-SPIDER Regional Support Offices

In its resolution 61/110, the General Assembly agreed that UN-SPIDER should work closely with regional and national centers of expertise in the use of space technology in disaster management and form a network of Regional Support Offices (RSOs) to help implement the UN-SPIDER Programme in their respective regions in a coordinated manner. The RSOs are regional or national centers of expertise in the use of space technology for disaster management. They support the implementation of the UN-SPIDER work plan by bringing in their expertise and resources, which can be in the areas of outreach and capacity-building, Technical Advisory Support, or even emergency response support. For example, after flash floods in Gaza, OPT (Occupied Palestinian Territory), in 2010, the Ukrainian RSO supported the response activities by rapid mapping of the affected area. In other instances, RSOs have sent experts to support Technical Advisory Missions or to contribute to international conferences on behalf of UN-SPIDER. To this day, a total of 10 RSOs have been established worldwide and negotiations on setting up additional RSOs are under way.

UN-SPIDER National Focal Points

National Focal Points (NFPs), which are nominated by the national government, are institutions representing the disaster management and/or space community of the respective country. Their role is to collaborate with UN-SPIDER by promoting access to and use of space-based solutions for disaster management, by strengthening national disaster management planning and policies and by implementing specific national activities that incorporate space-based technology solutions in support of disaster management. As of February 2011, 41 Member States nominated a National Focal Point.

UN-SPIDER activities: Technical Advisory Support and SpaceAid

With the support from its global network, UN-SPIDER carries out several activities in the areas of outreach, capacity-building, knowledge management and emergency support in order to facilitate institutional strengthening and to connect disaster management and space communities. In the following, two activities, Technical Advisory Support and the SpaceAid Framework, will be explained.

Technical Advisory Support helps a country to evaluate the existing national capacity to use space-based information, to analyze the current institutional framework, and to identify existing constraints and gaps regarding the use of space-based information for disaster risk management.

Technical Advisory Support can simply be technical advice to national institutions by means of meetings, teleconferences, remote desktop sharing etc., but it can also take the form of a Technical Advisory Mission. Technical Advisory Missions involve experts from space and disaster management agencies from other countries and relevant international and regional organisations and institutions. They are carried out in response to an official request made by the respective Member State and typically generate reports with recommendations, follow-up actions and suggestions on guidelines and policies on disaster management issues, always from the perspective of the use of space-based information in all stages of disaster management.

Furthermore, Technical Advisory Support deals with international cooperation and regional opportunities, facilitates networking among regional institutions and supports the setting up of disaster management plans. In the year 2010, UN-SPIDER has provided technical advisory support to 17 countries.

Another UN-SPIDER activity that provides support on the national level is the implementation of the SpaceAid Framework. The SpaceAid Framework facilitates the cooperation between disaster management and space communities and ensures access to space-based information to support emergency response activities. The Framework can be triggered by the National Focal Points, by Regional Support Offices and by UN Organizations through a hotline that can be accessed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Support is provided to countries as well as international and regional organizations to access space-based information in a timely manner.

After having identified the individual needs in consultation with the end-users, UN-SPIDER experts take advantage of partners in the SpaceAid Framework and ensure that resources are being made available. Among others, UNOOSA is a Cooperating Body of the International Charter: Space and Major Disasters, and the Office can also access the services of the GMES / SAFER project (the European Services and Applications For Emergency Response project) through the World Food Programme. Other opportunities to obtain imagery and data are exploited as well. Eventually, UN-SPIDER facilitates coordination among the users and existing mechanisms and through its network brings additional resources and expertise for data analysis and rapid mapping support. In 2010, a total of 30 emergency events were supported.

An exemplary case: Haiti earthquake 2010

UN-SPIDER’s actions following the Haiti earthquake included several steps. Firstly, emergency response activities through the SpaceAid Framework were conducted in order to ensure that space-based information was made accessible to end-users. For this purpose, UN-SPIDER mobilized a variety of partners and providers of space-based information, among them the International Charter: Space and Major Disasters. Satellite images and maps facilitated the rescue efforts as accessible roads and suitable areas for relief facilities could be identified. The information was made available online under the SpaceAid section of the UN-SPIDER Knowledge Portal. Through the website, UN-SPIDER continuously informed users about the availability of space-derived images, maps and related geospatial data of the affected areas.

Secondly, a Technical Advisory Mission was conducted in Haiti after the catastrophe to assess how space-based information was used during the immediate response phase and how it was being accessed to support ongoing recovery activities. The purpose of the mission was to support the Civil Protection Agency of Haiti and the National Center for Geo-Spatial Information by identifying institutional partners and improving links between national institutions and the UN agencies present in the country, to identify capacity-building needs, and to make suggestions on guidelines and policies on disaster management issues.

The UN-SPIDER Knowledge Portal

Knowledge management and transfer is one of the main tasks of UN-SPIDER. The UN-SPIDER Knowledge Portal is the tool that facilitates this activity. It is a web-based platform for information, communication and process support and fosters the exchange of information for sharing experiences, capacity-building, Technical Advisory Support, and SpaceAid. Hence, the Knowledge Portal plays an important role in supporting UN-SPIDER’s work to promote the use of space-based information and facilitates the coordination of activities and cooperation between experts, decision-makers and institutions in the field of disaster management. It offers communication platforms for users and the UN-SPIDER network at large. The portal contains guides to space technology application, technical and institutional background information as well as case studies and contact data. A regularly updated news section keeps users informed about UN-SPIDER activities and news from the community. Access to past issues of the UN-SPIDER Newsletter and monthly updates are provided as well. Additionally, an events calendar informs about upcoming workshops, conferences, and training opportunities.

The Space Application section supports the activities of the SpaceAid Framework described above. It allows fast and efficient orientation regarding access to space-based information and informs the user about available space-based products and services. The section further gives an overview on organizational frameworks and mechanisms that provide space-based information for disaster management and about their access options. Additionally, the Space Application Matrix offers a collection of case studies covering the use of all earth-directed, space-based information in disaster management and for all major natural or man-made disasters.

In the Advisory Support section, an overview of the UN-SPIDER Technical Advisory Support framework and respective missions is given. Furthermore, the visitor will find information on the UN-SPIDER Capacity-Building strategy.

The Knowledge Base contains guides on technologies, on disaster management, and on health support, offering background information on satellite technology and specific satellite missions, on policies and procedures concerning the management of different disaster types, and on the application of space technology in disaster medicine.

The Network section provides the user with links to the UN-SPIDER Regional Support Offices, National Focal Points and access to communities of practice on various topics. Through a communication platform, the UN-SPIDER network members can share and communicate content on a joint working space among themselves or with an open community.

Lastly, About Us informs about the mandate of UN-SPIDER, its organization and current staff. UN-SPIDER information material and publications can also be found in this area.

The Knowledge Portal is open to the public and anyone involved in the fields of disaster management and/or satellite technology. You are cordially invited to visit www.un-spider.org and register as a user.

UN-SPIDER: Closing the gap

Feedback from public authorities and users of space-based technology underlines the need to develop and reinforce systems for risk and disaster management, and promote preventive measures. Furthermore, insufficient human resources in terms of national experts to work with space-based information, or simply lack of awareness about the potential benefits of space-based information for disaster management, can be a challenge.

UN-SPIDER aims to close these gaps with the various means as described in this article. Raising awareness at the national level and providing support to strengthen local capacities are part of UN-SPIDER’s main activities. The overall objective of these efforts is to ensure that countries and organizations recognize the value of all types of space-based information and use it to efficiently reduce the impacts of disasters.


Natalie Epler and Michael Leitgab work as Associate Experts with the UN-SPIDER Programme. Natalie is based in Bonn, Germany, and is in charge of publications and information compilation and dissemination. Michael works on outreach activities and programme management in Vienna, Austria.