Data for Relief

GEOINT provided indispensable support to humanitarian aid efforts following Cyclone Idai in Mozambique


Before U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Leonardo Tongko, commander of the 435th Contingency Response Squadron, traveled to the Republic of Mozambique following Cyclone Idai this spring, he jumped into information-gathering mode.

This was the first Department of Defense (DoD) humanitarian assistance operation for Tongko, whose squadron was assigned to deliver food and supplies to areas in need. From his station at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, Tongko read about past hurricane relief efforts in New Orleans and Puerto Rico to learn what he might face in southeast Africa.

Tongko had already sent a five-person assessment team to Mozambique—which had endured 110-mile-per-hour winds and catastrophic flooding and destruction—and studied snapshots his team sent back of the current situation. Analyzing those images, as well as historical data provided by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) from the days before the cyclone, helped Tongko understand exactly where flooding had occurred.

Cyclone Idai vector and raster data sources gathered by the World Wide Human Geography Data Working Group. (Image courtesy of NGA)

“Before you go into harm’s way you want to have the best data you can,” said Tongko, a pilot by training. But no amount of data was as memorable to the squadron commander as the picture he viewed on his mobile device within a couple days of arrival.

“In this photo, there was a mother feeding her child a RUSF (Ready to Use Supplemental Food) that we had just packaged and delivered,” said Tongko, who received the image from a United Nations World Food Programme aid worker. “Seeing it immediately, we knew what we were doing was making an impact.”

Cyclone Idai, which also caused significant damage in Zimbabwe, Madagascar, and Malawi, made landfall March 14. The storm left more than 1,000 dead and thousands more missing. It knocked out electricity and communications, closed the airport in Beira (Mozambique’s fourth largest city), burst a dam, and flooded roads. Idai destroyed 90 percent of Beira, according to The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

“What the Mozambicans needed was relief, and they needed it quickly,” Tongko said.


In the challenging weeks that followed, NGA provided geospatial data and products to support the relief effort in Mozambique, working closely with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the lead U.S. response agency. First responders and humanitarian organizations that provided food and shelter relied heavily on NGA’s public website, which includes information such as population data from Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s LandScan, vector data derived from Sentinel 1A/1B radar imagery, and Landsat 8 imagery that revealed water inundation.

NGA analysts also provided unclassified information to the military—particularly to Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) and to U.S. Air Forces Africa, which is responsible for airlift support operations such as those carried out by the 435th. Both are components of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), the lead organization for DoD’s efforts.

NGA Associate Director for Operations Maj. Gen. Charles Cleveland stressed that preparation for crisis response such as that required in Mozambique happens not in the days after a disaster occurs but during the months and years prior. The agency has built strong partnerships with the U.S. State Department, AFRICOM, and various commercial entities, so when a storm makes landfall, NGA is ready to provide mapping data and predictive analysis, whether it’s information on where flooding is most likely to extend or how well infrastructure will withstand the water.

“Every crisis is different. So, our support to every response is, too,” Cleveland said. “We strive to do things better and garner lessons learned from every crisis response we support. Our focus on people and partnerships helped us choreograph support from a wide variety of agencies and organizations.”

Among the most significant concerns during rescue efforts in Mozambique were another cyclone on the heels of Idai, flooding that would force workers to higher ground, a flooded airfield, and where to safely stage personnel and resources. Understanding both weather and flooding patterns was paramount.

Challenges faced by military personnel and humanitarian workers in the aftermath of disasters such as Idai are uniquely suited for GEOINT, according to Cleveland.

A Mother feeds her child RUSF (Ready-to-Use Supplemental Food) delivered by Lt. Tongko’s team. (Photo credit: WFP/Deborah Nguyen)

“They need to be able to see what’s on the ground,” he said. “GEOINT plays a huge role in supporting those who need support.”

Geospatial data can not only show which areas are most affected by natural disasters, it can also indicate the spatial relationships among locations and reveal recommended and alternative transportation routes.

In Mozambique, NGA coordinated with CJTF-HOA’s operations and intelligence directorates to provide reference maps and imagery for airfields used in relief operations as well as graphics illustrating damaged areas, the condition of transportation networks, and the extent of flooding. GEOINT was used to determine the status of airfields and to set up airfield distribution hubs, then to inform decisions as to where and how to transport supplies to secondary points.

During the mission, CJTF-HOA personnel reached out to NGA personnel in the agency’s Springfield, Va., and St. Louis, Mo., offices for support. According to NGA, one particularly useful product was a road trafficability assessment, which helped those on the ground get supplies to affected populations as quickly as possible.

Sharing information with local responders quickly is often one of the most significant challenges in an area with limited communications.

“The GEOINT data requires high bandwidth, so it comes down to what can you push through what we call ‘limited data pipes,’” Cleveland said, adding that the agency sends a lot of data to a known, central location with dependable internet, and then workers head into the field and subsequently may not be able to refresh the information. “We would like to figure out a way to get information to people with a very low bandwidth.”


Though NGA provides both classified and unclassified data, the consensus among military forces and government personnel who were part of the Mozambique relief effort is that unclassified imagery, data from NGA’s public website, and material from PIX—an unclassified, password-protected system sponsored by the U.S. government and hosted on AWS GovCloud that includes an image repository—were preferable to classified data because of the ability to share with anyone.

“In a humanitarian crisis like this, I think unclassified becomes one of the most important resources we have,” Cleveland said.

David Crow, the NGA site lead at CJTF-HOA in Djibouti said that in general, the classified information was used by military planners and the unclassified information was used by non-DoD units on the ground in Mozambique.

“Open-source information was the first information received regarding the extent and type of damage, flood conditions, and severity of the weather conditions, so it was crucial in getting a rough estimate of the storm’s impact,” Crow said.

He added that much of the open-source information came from those who had endured the storm on the ground—someone in the capital city of Maputo relaying information from someone in Chimoio on social media, for example. At times, this can lead to unverified information, which muddies the overall assessment of the situation. Hearsay is to be expected in the initial reporting after any crisis, Crow continued, so the use of open-source reporting should be approached with caution.

Unsubstantiated reports aside, Cleveland said information from people on the ground can be useful, including handheld photographs, verbal updates, news reports, and social media posts from citizens and aid workers.

“There’s great information that comes from social media,” Cleveland said. “What’s more important than the collection platform is the dissemination. In some cases, we just want to get it out on the [internet]. We want more data, want to get it faster, and want to turn it to the hands of the people who need it faster.”

One important lesson the agency learned from the Mozambique crisis was that its ability to quickly disseminate mapping data in support of humanitarian aid was not as robust as its ability to share commercial imagery.

“We have built into our contracts a humanitarian crisis support plan that releases new imagery of a crisis almost immediately on the [internet], but we did not have that clause written into some of our other contracts,” Cleveland said. “This caused minor delays in the delivery of some of the data types. The first few hours and days of a crisis like this are critical, so we’re working to remedy these delays and provide all the necessary support in an even more timely fashion.”

Tongko echoed Cleveland’s thoughts on welcoming intelligence from a variety of sources. When he arrived at the joint operations center, he didn’t necessarily know where all of the briefing information came from, only that he and his C-130 pilots felt confident relying on that material in aggregate moving forward.

“It’s not exactly to the second, but it’s high fidelity,” Tongko said about the GEOINT data that was available to him in Mozambique. “Geospatial intelligence was able to give us a very good visual depiction of where there was flooding, and open-source information helped us round out our decision-making.”

Also invaluable were products that allowed pilots to compare reference GEOINT (what they see on their charts) with current GEOINT (what they’re seeing out the windshield).

“There might be buildings in location XYZ en route to your runway, and it’s important to know if they’re no longer there or flooded,” Tongko said.

During its 21-day relief mission, Tongko’s 435th squadron delivered 1.8 million pounds of supplies provided by USAID, including food, cholera vaccines, temporary shelters, support vehicles, blankets, hygiene kits, water purification tools, and cooking oil—beneficial for the high calorie count and as a cooking substitute so scarce clean water could be reserved for drinking. In total, the U.S. military flew more than 120 flights to deliver supplies.

Tongko said the power of geospatial intelligence combined with open-source information from social media can’t be understated. “Especially when you see the devastation,” he explained. “The biggest concern was that the kids weren’t going to develop because they didn’t have food. And now they have a chance.”

Strong partnerships were essential to making the relief effort a success, according to Cleveland.

“We have good working relationships with our partners, and this event allowed us to grow the team,” he said. “This was not just an NGA effort; it was a global effort that truly demonstrates the power of the enterprise.”

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