Interview with iMMAP MENA Director and internationally recognized GIS expert, Craig Von Hagen

Craig von Hagen is the Regional Director for iMMAP's Middle East and North Africa office, based in Amman, Jordan. Craig has 20 years of experience in the commercial and non-profit sectors, including the United Nations and NGOs, and has been with iMMAP since March 2008. Craig is a certified GIS Professional and an internationally recognized expert in geographic information systems and spatial data infrastructure.

How did you get yourself involved in the world of GIS and information management?

My first exposure to GIS was at university, where I studied Geography. GIS was a new field back then and being able to layer datasets to gain a new view or perspective of what was happening on the ground was especially attractive to me. With Geography being a multidisciplinary subject, GIS gives us the tools that allow us to view our multi-dimensional world in one place. But what really hooked me into the world of GIS was my first trip to the field in South Africa. Armed with a GPS to gather data points and then injecting that same data onto any random map cemented my captivation and fascination with that world.

How have data and information management evolved over the years, particularly since you made your first dive into the field?

Software tools have become easier and easier to use and access. Anybody with access to the internet can learn data gathering and make that data accessible to others. There is so much data and an abundance of tools out there. The landscape continuously changes, so it’s a challenge to keep up.

Information management, specifically processing data and turning it into useful information, is the core of iMMAP’s work. Can you tell us about the process of information management in the humanitarian context?

In an emergency setting, understanding who needs help, where is help needed and what is urgently needed requires reliable data. This is where the practice of information management is brought in. Having the right system in place and enabling this system to gather, process and share reliable data and information to help humanitarian actors coordinate better to deliver assistance is crucial in any humanitarian operation.

Although traditionally speaking, IM [information management] in the humanitarian context was an afterthought. We had this old saying, ‘the last thing you think of and the first thing you need, a map,’ was true.

In the past, when an emergency was declared, agencies responded with sector experts, program managers and coordination roles who then had the burden of trying to collect data in a variety of ways to ensure aid is getting to underserved populations while also trying to perform their core tasks. Having the right IM expertise to be able to take away this burden and streamline the data collection response to what sector experts need is crucial in serving the needs of beneficiaries. This is where iMMAP fits in, to try and fill this need.

What are the most common challenges iMMAP faces in assisting partners? How is iMMAP helping its partners solve such challenges?

The most common challenge in most contexts is access to the field. Often, areas are dangerous from a security point of view, or completely cut-off during a conflict or natural disaster. Being able to still answer questions about beneficiaries without having access to them is a challenge we all face. There is still a lot of data that can be found and accessed remotely, whether it be through satellite imagery, or even through social media. The problem these days is not the amount of data that is available. It is how you harness and use that data to answer specific questions.

In a large and complex crisis like Syria, data collection can be challenging. Humanitarian actors have different data collection practices, using different tools and formats. Such results lead to data being fragmented and unfit for comparison, which prevents organizations and coordination groups from utilizing resources effectively to reach those who need help urgently. We help our partners develop a cohesive data set by harmonizing data standards.
With the situation in Syria altering and evolving, in what ways can iMMAP play a vital role in the latest phase of the Syrian crisis?

Humanitarian contexts always evolve from emergency-life-saving response to a more measured and early-recovery and development intervention. Data collected can be used for different things -- it is just a matter of knowing what questions the responder wants to answer. Data sharing is key as well as there have been many examples of data that has been collected to answer a very specific question, and then that data never gets seen again. iMMAP can facilitate this data-sharing process as well as assist in understanding context. We have a team of field specialists, including research analysts and sector experts who are working with UN agencies and NGOs to understand how the context in Syria is evolving and the dynamics that are at play within these contexts. These involve support to monitoring population movements, food security, profiling of urban areas and understanding market systems, to name a few.

The international community is more and more being drawn to the crisis in Yemen. What is iMMAP’s role in assisting partners respond to the crisis in Yemen?

Similar to our response in Syria, our focus remains deploying information management services. We have been supporting the Humanitarian Program Cycle and sectors involved in life-saving operations, specifically the health sector due to concerns on acute malnutrition and the spread of cholera, diphtheria and measles. We’ve also had the opportunity of working with our partners on developing a notification system that contributes to the safety of humanitarian workers in the field. These are just a few but a lot has been going on in the background to support coordination work.

How has information management aided those responding to the crisis in Syria and Yemen?

IM is always something that happens in the background, so it’s very difficult to quantify the impact of better IM practices, specifically when we’re talking about environments that evolve constantly due to conflict. The goal is to gather data and help agencies reach their beneficiaries with the least amount of resources while ensuring a wider geographic coverage for service delivery. This can be as straightforward as converting a paper-based questionnaire to digital form, which helps minimize the cost of capturing data, eliminates errors in the data collection process, and reduces the time taken to turn raw data into something tangible and useful like maps, dashboards and reports.

Within iMMAP, we’ve developed a significant number of products over the years to help humanitarian actors carry out life-saving assistance. Since 2017, we’ve delivered more than 3,000 information management products, including more than 1,700 maps and even trained almost 1,000 humanitarian actors in information management.

Steering away from information management, you’re considered an internationally-recognized GIS expert. How did you obtain this distinction?

First and foremost, I consider myself a Geographer. GIS is just one of the tools that a Geographer uses to answer questions about the real world. Saying that, GIS and maps for me, are the key elements that bring everything together. Maps simplify reality so that we, as humans, can try to understand the complex interplays and relationships that make up the real world.

The distinction itself is a difficult one to answer – certification internationally of an ‘expert’ in the field is still developing, however, South Africa has a certification process that I have obtained via the Geo-Information Society of South Africa (GISSA). With the paper in hand, experience gained in multiple contexts around the world, and recognition from peers help define an ‘expert.’ Although I am uncomfortable with the term as there is a constant learning process that one needs to adapt to keep abreast of new technologies and tools. An expert 20 years ago, does not mean you are one today.

What tips do you have for those looking to delve into the world of data and information management? What advice do you have for the next generation?

Get out there and explore! The only way you can help others in a response is to understand what works in the middle of nowhere. If you know that, you can help in your small way. As the English writer, J.R.R. Tolkien, once said, ‘Little by little, one travels far.’

To know more about iMMAP’s work in the MENA region, download the iMMAP MENA brochure or email