How GIS Can Be Used for Humanitarian Aid – Case Study from Direct Relief

This week at the Esri International User Conference, non-profit Direct Relief was awarded the President’s Award for outstanding applications of a geographic information system (GIS). Direct Relief is a non-profit, non-partisan organization that provides medical material assistance to those affected by natural disasters, civil unrest and poverty.

I had the chance to speak with Andrew Schroeder, Director of Research and Analysis at Direct Relief. Schroeder shared his insights as to how Direct Relief has leveraged GIS to fulfill a compelling mission, and reflections on how Direct Relief operates.

Schroeder states, “Direct Relief is a humanitarian medical material assistance organization; so we distribute essential medicines, supplies, such as antibiotics, needles and syringes and rapid test kits for HIV, that are essential for provision of services but local clinics may not be able to purchase on their own.”

Direct Relief operates on a global scale, and provides humanitarian relief in all 50 US states and more than 70 countries. Direct Relief has worked on relief efforts after the tornadoes in Moore, Oklahoma, Hurricane Sandy and Haiti following the earthquake.

One case study that Schroeder mentioned was from Hurricane Sandy. Schroeder states, “One of the clinics that we support is a clinic in Red Hook, New Jersey, called the Joseph P Addabbo Health Center. After Hurricane Sandy the entire first floor of their clinic was up to the ceiling full of water, so they had to gut the entire clinic and rebuild the entire center. It was literally under 10 feet of water, and stayed that way for two days and gradually went down.” Direct Relief provided assistance to restock the health center and grant support to their rebuilding effort.

Direct Relief has also been rated one of the 20 most efficient large US charities by Forbes, and received the Peter F. Drucker Award for Nonprofit Innovation in 2011.

The GIS applications are fascinating, and another case study of the many applications of how organizations can leverage GIS and spatial data to fulfill mission needs. Starting in 2007, Direct Relief began to use GIS to help target and track their humanitarian efforts.

Direct Relief receives donations of medical supplies from major medical manufactures. Manufactures donate to Direct Relief, and Direct Relief manages the delivery of materials to those in need. Schroeder continued to mention the value of GIS at Direct Relief, stating, “We put GIS into basically everything. It started primarily with communications- so aid transparency was the leading edge and has been a consistent high value ever since.”

During the donation process, Direct Relief provides data and information to donors visually by leveraging digital mapping applications. “Donors want to know exactly where their donations go and we tell that story in a visually compelling way through GIS,” states Schroeder.

Some examples of what Direct Relief can show visually to donors is:

  • Precisely what materials went where, and when they were delivered
  • What the total worth of the donation was
  • Why the donation was appropriate assistance
  • Facilities and population profiles in the area of the donation
  • Patient medical needs and demographics

This data is imperative for donors to see the value of their contributions to Direct Relief. Ultimately, “GIS is helping to build better relationships of trust between donors and recipients,” states Schroeder.

Interestingly, the donation metrics can be tailored based on donor needs and desires. Often, when you donate to non-profits, you can donate to specific funds, or unrestricted funds for general use. The same is true with the medial supplies that Direct Relief receives. Manufactures have donated to Direct Relief for general assistance, or more tailored programs in support of the corporate philanthropy programs.

For instance, a medical company may produce needles for insulin injection. They may want to donate to specific programs focused around obesity, poverty and diabetes. Direct Relief will use those requirements, and then manage the program accordingly for the manufacturer.

Direct Relief’s application of GIS technology is one of the many ways that GIS is transforming our world. What is intriguing to me about this case study is how Direct Relief has leveraged GIS as part of their identity as an organization. Schroeder is working to train more staff on GIS, and train users how they can leverage GIS to improve their day to day work, make their jobs more effective, help the organization collect more resources, track information and continue to work towards their mission goals.

Direct Relief is doing some amazing work in the non-profit world, and is a great model for fundraising and non-profit management. You can learn all about Direct Relief by visiting their site.

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Esri was founded in 1969, it realized even then that geographic information system (GIS) technology could make a difference in society. GIS helps people to solve problems at local, regional, national, and global scales. Access maps and apps at Be sure to check out all the
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