2016 Safety, Security and International Affairs

Carrie Stokes

Helped USAID make better decisions about its economic and humanitarian assistance in developing countries by championing the use of satellite data and geographic information to combat poverty, disease and natural disasters.

When it comes to combating global poverty, disease and natural disasters, it helps to have someone who sees the big picture.

Carrie Stokes, with the U.S. Agency for International Development, has used mapping and satellite imagery to help the government decide more effectively where and how to provide aid and humanitarian assistance.

For example, this year’s El Niño event is one of the strongest in recorded history and is linked to droughts and floods that are triggering food shortages. Mapping areas in Africa affected by El Nino and comparing it to areas where the government is focused on improving food security is helping inform investments from the current crisis response to longer-term resilience.

Likewise, satellite imagery is being used in Bangladesh to map agricultural features on the ground and the data it is being validated with local residents to inform implementation of food security and nutrition programs.

“Carrie has literally helped put places on the map,” said Priya Jaisinghani, acting director of USAID’s Center for Global Solutions. “Never before did we have this granular data that allowed us to fully understand complex issues about regions where we conduct our missions.”

Stokes’ efforts to champion the use of satellite data and other geographic information have contributed to the response to the migration of thousands of unaccompanied children from Central America, the earthquake in Nepal as well as the prevention of malaria in Mozambique. 

Stokes’ belief in the value of geospatial technology to help solve problems led to the creation in 2011 of the GeoCenter within USAID, which is institutionalizing the use of geospatial tools and analysis in support of international development.

“It changed how development work gets done for the better,” said Michael Crino, deputy director of the GeoCenter, which Stokes directs. “USAID is more effective as a result.”

But the former Peace Corps volunteer also values the presence of people on the ground to complete the picture. One example is how aid was delivered to Nepal after the devastating earthquake in April 2015.

In 2013, Stokes and her team partnered with innovators at the World Bank, George Washington University’s Department of Geography, and Kathmandu Living Labs, a local non-governmental organization in Nepal. Together, they used high-resolution satellite imagery and an online mapping platform to digitize information about key infrastructure in Kathmandu.

The local team in Kathmandu conducted site visits to collect detailed information about the buildings, and validated the geographic data that had been prepared remotely by student-mappers in the U.S. The result was a valuable geospatial database, available to anyone with access to the Internet. When the earthquake hit, the GeoCenter was ready to provide the mapping data to search-and-rescue teams.

Disaster relief workers arrived with detailed maps in hand. “That enabled the teams to know where to focus their efforts and save more lives,” said Jerry O’Brien, director of USAID’s Center for Data, Analysis and Research.

In support of USAID’s long-term vision to end extreme poverty, Stokes’ team developed a method to analyze the drivers of human vulnerability and display the spatial variation across a country. This helps the agency target areas of greatest need to maximize the impact of its programs.

The team looks at multiple threats to livelihoods, such as shocks to health, agriculture, food prices, weather and natural disasters. They also analyze contributing factors such as age, gender, ethnicity and education levels of households. And then the team maps the results.

“Combining statistical analysis with geographic information systems allows us to visualize data from different sources and find critical relationships,” Stokes explained.

Stokes’ work has influenced international development in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Twenty-five USAID field offices have hired local specialists, and the demand for this expertise is growing.

“Empowering local people in the countries where USAID works leads to better solutions to development challenges,” she said.

Such work has won Stokes praise from her colleagues.

“Carrie’s accomplishments stem from a combination of being a visionary, creating a great team and being a partnership builder,” said Ann Mei Chang, USAID’s chief innovation officer and executive director of Global Development Lab. “She is the whole package.” 

Stokes needed all her talents and grit to convince her agency that geospatial analysis would be useful. She did it by building relationships, understanding the challenges and demonstrating how the approach could help provide evidence to inform decisions.

It took eight years to get the go-ahead to create the GeoCenter. “But people are starting to get it now. A good map is worth a thousand words,” she said.