Support in Sudan – how mapping makes a difference!

As an organisation, we sponsor the charity MapAction. they provide mapping support in the aftermath of disasters where thousands of people can suddenly find themselves battling to save lives and livliehoods.  Before aid agencies can help them, the first requirement is information. Which areas have yet to be reached? Where are the relief resources? Where are the people in greatest need?

MapAction delivers this vital information in mapped form, from data gathered at the disaster scene. Creating a ‘shared operational picture’ is crucial for making informed decisions and delivering aid to the right place, quickly.

Ordnance Survey support the charity, both with funding and occasionally with personnel. Recently our colleague Chris Phillips has been in Sudan to help provide mapping and information management services following the impact of the serious flooding in the country.Heavy rain and flash floods in several areas of Sudan had affected up to 530,000 people. Between 15,000 and 18,000 houses had been destroyed, with Khartoum being the most-affected state.

Nationwide flooding affected 270,000 last year. This year’s floods are being considered the worst since the historical marker of the 1988 floods.

Our colleague Chris Phillips was deployed to Sudan to help MapAction provide mapping and information management support. MapAction was there to try to identify which datasets were held by the UN and which were missing and would be needed in advance of the next humanitarian crisis. He also identified a wider lack of information about what is actually happening on the ground following years of civil unrest.

This is an extract from his report:

“Another hot evening in Khartoum, spiced up by the sudden and somewhat violent arrival of a proper haboub (sandstorm) which hurled curtains of sand across the streets and into our meals up here on the rooftop cafe  (simply called The Roof)  of our guesthouse, The Bougainvilla. It’s been a full day of delays and interrupted plans brought on primarily by the civil unrest in the streets triggered by the government’s withdrawal of the subsidies for fuel and wheat effectively doubling the price of some staple foods along with petrol, diesel and gas canisters almost overnight. Street protests were a given after that.

Operationally, Sudan is a difficult place to work. To quote a UNDP report “The complexity of Sudan’s security, political and socio-economic situation is difficult to overstate”, an assessment we’re learning to fully appreciate with each passing day.


We arrived at Khartoum and were met by a smiling Sudanese fixer sent by UNOCHA (UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) who helped guide us through the maze of Sudanese beaurocracy before we were handed back our passports with a shiny new visa glued inside. We retrieved our lonely armoured pelicase from the carousel and followed our fixer/driver out the front door and into an oven. Without a doubt, Khartoum is set on BAKE. Once in our rooms at the Bougainvilla Guesthouse our first job was to switch on the ceiling fan and the air conditioning (to our minds now, the absolute pinnacle of human technological ingenuity) and try to get some sleep before our first day.

The Bougainvilla is ideally placed for our work alongside UNOCHA as it’s only a 3 minute walk along some back streets to OCHA’s back door. Everyone at OCHA is very friendly and we quickly felt part of the office. Even better, the Head of Office seems to be a map enthusiast (to judge by his office) and especially glad to have MapAction on the scene. We were shown to our allocated desks, an OCHA IT bod hooked us into their shared drives/printers and we were off. Thus began our first few days feeling our way around what data we had, what data we didn’t have and what data we could possibly get a hold of(or wish for) in Khartoum. This was mixed with meeting, or preparing to meet, various information managers and data custodians around Khartoum (e.g. OCHA Coordination staff, Sudanese Red Crescent directors and thA burning petrol station in Arawit sends up clouds of black smokee GoS Humanitarian Assistance Commission).


The first tangible indication of the protests (later covered by BBC and Al Jazeera news) came in the form of billowing clouds of black smoke rising from Arawit district just to our south.  Some OCHA drivers told us that a market and a petrol station there had been torched.  We all climbed up to the rooftop to have a look. Shortly afterward OCHA Admin instructed the driver pool to stay put in the secure car park and issued a “no travel” advisory to the rest of us.

Clearly, no one was going out for lunch so someone ordered a pizza delivery and it duly arrived which indicated to us that it wasn’t that bad out on the streets. Also, Magdi, the OCHA GIS bod, somehow managed to nip out to fetch fresh bread and an enormous bowl of his homemade “ful” (a sort of thick spicy bean dip) and a group meal was formed around a table. Meanwhile, as a precautionary measure, we were issued VHF radios and call signs. MapAction training in radio protocols kicked in so we were ahead of the crowd. Unexpectedly, Internet access suddenly disappeared (we discovered later that the outage was citywide)  and after lunch the Head of Office came down and announced that he was sending us all home and that the office would be closed on Thursday (we could all work from home).  We saw no reason to stay on and packed up to carry on working from Office B, our rooftop terrace at the guesthouse.

Evening brought no return of the internet so we caught up on admin/ops tasks while we were set up on the roof surrounded by the sounds of Khartoum. Shortly after dark we were treated to one of Khartoum’s famous haboubs (sandstorm). Think of a sudden hot squall. A squall that also throws sand down in sheets until it stings your skin. It roared about our rooftop terrace for about 15 minutes and then disappeared as quickly as it arrived. Normal services resumed after it passed, traffic came back on the roads and our local mosques called out.  Sadly, small arms barked at one other sporadically throughout the night (thankfully all at some distance from our location).

Working on the rooftop - Nick McWilliam and Chris Phillips

So today (Friday) we’re back in our rooftop office in Lock Down mode per the UN Security (DSS) advisory, listening to the VHF’s and receiving DSS text reports.  Took advantage of the subdued feeling and took a brief stroll around our neighbourhood (Riyad City) to stretch our legs and have a look around. It’ll be another hot evening in Khartoum as we try to finish up the last of our mapping tasks before dinner. What had been an exceptionally quiet day has been interrupted by reports of demonstrations and (occasional) gunfire all over the city. We’ve set ourselves an ad hoc task of mapping all the incident reports coming in via radio and text.”

Chris Phillips reporting from Sudan

Chris is now safely back in Great Britain, his task in Sudan completed for the time being, but Map Action are ready to support wherever they are needed.

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