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MSc International Disaster Management / Course details

Year of entry: 2020

Course unit details:
A Critical Introduction to GIS and Disasters

Unit code HCRI60072
Credit rating 15
Unit level FHEQ level 7 – master's degree or fourth year of an integrated master's degree
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Offered by Humanitarian Conflict Response Institute
Available as a free choice unit? No


As an integrating discipline, Geography and the study of spatial patterns and relationships of phenomena on the earth, including people, places and the environment, can help us best answer the global questions of our time. Geographic information systems (GIS) are computer systems for capturing, storing, checking, analysing, displaying and sharing data related to positions on Earth's surface. GIS and the analysis of spatial data has broad application to many fields, such as environmental management, urban studies and planning, business, the government sector, as well as disaster management. Today more than ever we need innovative approaches to understanding, analysing and managing hazards, risk, and vulnerabilities to reduce the loss of lives and other negative impacts of disasters.


In this course students will be exposed to a range of transferrable GIS techniques and analysis tools and will learn how to apply these to various disaster management tasks, such as mapping vulnerability using census data, or modelling risk using meteorological and other physical geography data. Students will learn important cartographic principles and develop their own GIS maps. In addition to the practical components, the course will develop theoretical understandings and critically consider the appropriateness and implications of GIS approaches and map making.


The course aims to:

  • Develop an understanding of spatial data and its analysis
  • Develop spatial problem-solving abilities and practical skills in GIS analysis and cartography
  • Explore a broad set of applications of spatial data and GIS for crisis management and disaster risk reduction
  • Critically reflect on the power, usefulness, and limitations of GIS and spatial data broadly and in disaster management


  1.             Course overview / Understanding geographic data, spatial analysis and GIS / map projections

    2.            Sourcing geographic data / data models / working in ArcGIS with vector data

    3.            Mapping social vulnerability

    Drop-in session: additional help

    4.            Interpolation / mapping physical vulnerability

    5.            Raster surfaces / digital elevation models

    6.            Mapping hazard risk continued / critical GIS discussion

    Drop-in session: more advanced map making techniques

    7.            Cartography / basic map making

    Drop-in session: additional help / more advanced map making techniques

    8.            Making thematic maps / poster assignment

    9.            Web GIS, volunteered geographic information, and digital humanitarianism

    10.         Critical reflection on GIS in disaster management

Teaching and learning methods

The module will be delivered through ten seminars/workshops, which include interactive lecture components on GIS theory and applications, and practical GIS exercises, leading to the production of a thematic map poster. There will be three optional sessions for additional technical assistance either for those new to GIS or those wishing to extend their work to include more advanced analyses. The seminar content will be supported by disaster management case studies and critical discussions. There are both strong theoretical and practical elements to this course, and while students will learn practical skills through ‘hands-on’ GIS activities, they will also be expected to complete relevant readings and engage in active critique of GIS theory and applications, both in class discussions and in the final essay assessment. 

Knowledge and understanding

Demonstrate knowledge and understanding of:

  • Different types of spatial data and how they are developed and analysed
  • Current and potential applications of spatial data and GIS in disaster management
  • Spatial analysis as a mechanism for assessing hazard risk and vulnerability
  • The implications of GIS, including the power of maps to persuade, digital divides and unequal access to spatial information, contemporary trends and changing practices

Intellectual skills

  • Identify and evaluate patterns and trends in spatial data
  • Investigate dynamic phenomena through interrogation of spatial and temporal data
  • Consider the influence of geography on different approaches to analysing and managing disasters
  • Critically analyse the role of GIS and mapping in disaster management, and the underpinning theories

Practical skills

  • Conduct a range of analyses on both vector and raster datasets
  • Combine multiple data to address real world problems
  • Cartography skills and the design and production of a thematic map poster
  • Research skills, including planning, prioritisation of tasks, identification and location of sources, critical evaluation of findings.
  • Essay-writing skills related to the analysis of a specific question, construction of arguments, assessment and deployment of evidence, writing style.
  • Participation in online and in-class discussions

Transferable skills and personal qualities

  • Spatial data analysis and interpretation skills.
  • Experience in preparing GIS maps of the same kind that may be used in academia, policy development, or the professional sector.
  • Critical thinking, research and project management skills
  • Skills to help them interpret current and future disaster risk and vulnerability
  • Ethical awareness


Employability skills

Analytical skills
Project management
Oral communication
Problem solving
Written communication
Professional knowledge and skills: GIS and spatial data analysis (ESRI ArcGIS in particular)

Assessment methods

Thematic Map (50%)

Essay (50%)

Feedback methods

  • Informal feedback during class discussions
  • Informal oral feedback in drop-in sessions throughout semester
  • Written feedback on thematic map poster, returned to students according to SALC guidelines and time limits, using a bespoke rubric
  • Written feedback on individual essay, returned to students according to SALC guidelines and time limits, using the SALC rubric
  • Additional one-to-one feedback (during the consultation hour or by making an appointment)

Recommended reading

Brewer, C.A. (2006). Basic mapping principles for visualizing cancer data using geographic information systems (GIS). American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 30(2S): S25-S36.

Büchele, B., Kreibich, H., Kron, A., Thieken, A., Ihringer, J., Oberle, P., Merz, B., and Nestmann, F. (2006). Flood-risk mapping: contributions towards an enhanced assessment of extreme events and associated risks, Nat. Hazards Earth Syst. Sci., 6: 485-503.

Chuvieco, E., & Congalton, R. G. (1989). Application of remote sensing and geographic information systems to forest fire hazard mapping. Remote sensing of Environment, 29(2): 147-159.

Esri (2017). Emergency and Disaster Management. Webpage. Accessed 24 September, 2017 at

Goodchild, M.F., & Glennon, J.A. (2010). Crowdsourcing geographic information for disaster response: A research frontier. International Journal of Digital Earth, 3(3): 231-241.

Haworth, B. (2018). Implications of volunteered geographic information for disaster management and GIScience: A more complex world of volunteered geography. Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 108(1): 226-240.

Longley, P.A., Goodchild, M., Maguire, D.J. & Rhind, D.W. (2010). Geographic Information Systems and Science: 3rd edition. New York: Wiley.

Monmonier, M. (2005). Lying with maps. Statistical Science, 20(3): 215-222.

Tomaszewski, B. (2014). Geographic Information Systems (GIS) for Disaster Management. CRC Press. 310 pages.

Tran, P., Shaw, R., Chantry, G. & Norton, J. (2009). GIS and local knowledge in disaster management: a case study of flood risk mapping in Viet Nam. Disasters, 33(1): 152-169.

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 22
Tutorials 8
Independent study hours
Independent study 120

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Billy Haworth Unit coordinator

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