Technical Articles

International Journal of Auditing – October 2006

Disaster-Related Aid: Using Geographic Information in Audits

Editors Note: note INTOSAI’s Task Force on Accountability for and Audit of Disaster-Related Aid is searching for a global audit trail for tsunamirelated aid by developing strategies for the use of data captured through geographical information systems for planning, monitoring ,and auditing diasaterrelated aid flows. In this article, the authors, both members of the task force, describe the valuable contributions of geographical information systems to this task.

To audit disaster-related aid efficiently and effectively, an audit trail must be established
to track the complex flow of humanitarian aid. Many factors—multiple national
and international donors and recipients; the blending and division of aid flows; and
a lack of coordination, cooperation, and harmonization—can hinder accountability
and lead to waste, competition, fraud, and corruption. In this situation, audits help to
ensure that the following questions are answered:

  • Trust: Has the aid pledged been provided? Has the aid pledged led to appropriate
  • Regularity: Has the aid been spent on the intended purposes?
  • Efficiency: Has the aid been spent as efficiently as possible?
  • Effectiveness: Has the aid been spent as effectively as possible?

This article outlines how a geographical information system (GIS)—which combines
computer hardware, software, and geographic data to capture, manage, analyze, and
display geographically referenced information—can provide the information needed to
answer these questions. Such systems are already being used successfully for auditing
purposes. Combining geographical information with other information on disaster aid
makes it possible to better monitor and track the aid flows and visualize high-risk areas
for waste, competition, fraud, and corruption. Visualizing these risks makes it possible
to direct the scarce audit capacities of donor and recipient SAIs more efficiently and

Using Geographic Information for Audit

As shown in figure 1, a GIS combines information from a variety of sources (e.g.,
pictures, maps, and data), links the information to a geographic location, and displays
it visually. In a GIS, data are linked to a “geocode”—a geographical code to identify
a point or area on the earth’s surface. Most GIS applications work with a digital map.
A GIS can also be used in combination with satellite pictures, although this use is not
yet common. A GIS portrays important information graphically—the way the human
brain works—making connections more obvious than columns of numbers or, at best,
colored charts. In this way, a GIS allows a user to see regions, counties, neighborhoods,
and the people who live in them with unprecedented clarity. It shows layer upon layer of information—for example, demographic trends, income levels, voting tendencies,
poverty rates, pollution levels, epidemics, and Internet accessibility—and how all the
layers work together. The user chooses the information to layer based on the questions
that must be answered. Thus, the types of information that a GIS can provide are
limited only by the imagination.

Figure 1: Components of Geographical Information Systems

GIS applications have been used frequently for audit purposes. The task force found
several examples that show how valuable their use can be.

Auditing Housing Subsidies

The City of Portland, Oregon, in the United States, used a GIS to help low-income residents find affordable housing and ensure the availability of housing for a growing population at all income levels. The Office of the City Auditor audited the city’s housing programs,1 collecting data on expenditures and accomplishments from 17 data sets and merging these data with more than 3,500 addresses representing 11,700 housing units receiving city funding. The auditor identified units receiving subsidies from multiple city programs and mapped their geographic distribution, drawing together information that had not been available previously because city subsidy programs had never been combined in a single audit.

Auditing Eligibility Determinations

U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) auditors used GIS techniques to determine that 1,300 communities were not receiving rural housing assistance even though they were located within eligible geographic boundaries and met other criteria. GAO concluded that the U.S. government should change the definition of "rural areas" to better capture communities that are rural in character and to improve determinations of eligibility.

Using a GIS for Disaster Response and Management

A GIS is commonly used for disaster response and management. Plotting the accurate physical geography of a disaster event on a computer and aligning that geography with other relevant features, events, conditions, or threats can speed and facilitate decision making. In the United States, auditors effectively used a GIS to display the paths of destruction caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and their effect on natural gas production, processing, and pipeline infrastructure in several states bordering the Gulf of Mexico. The use of a GIS enabled the auditors to present, in a compellingly visual way, the extensive network of pipelines layered with thousands of gas platforms and layered again with the paths of the hurricanes over time.2

Monitoring Systems for Tsunami-Related Aid

If government-led tools that track aid are accurately populated by governments and implementing partners, they can be essential sources of information on funding, costs, location, and sector impacts. Various monitoring and tracking systems for tsunami-related aid are in place, including the Financial Tracking Service (FTS) of the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) and the Development Assistance Database (DAD) developed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and a private company.

FTS is a global, real-time database that records all reported international humanitarian aid. FTS is intended to display the totality, sources, and uses of humanitarian aid globally and for each crisis. It includes a special focus on consolidated and flash appeals3 because they cover major humanitarian crises and because their funding requirements are well defined. As a result, FTS can show the extent to
which populations in crisis receive humanitarian aid in proportion to needs. UN
OCHA manages FTS, using data provided by donors or recipient organizations.4

DAD is an online database system that provides access to real-time information on project financing, implementation, and outputs. For governments and donors, DAD provides a customized strategic tool to support coordination, planning, operational management, and reporting of results. Its ability to track resources from programming to output allows for an enhanced monitoring capability and for wider accountability and transparency.

With UNDP support, the governments of Sri Lanka, Maldives, Thailand, and Indonesia have established nationally owned DADs. At the regional level, an information portal and a DAD system have been developed to bring together results and resource allocation data from each country and make it available within a single window.5 The strength of the DAD system is that it can be adapted to support national planning and budgeting processes, which increases the likelihood that data will be accurate and the system will be sustained in the future.

When the tsunami struck, these governments had incomplete aid records—often merely memorandums of understanding regarding aid projects. Information systems consisted primarily of paper- or Excel-based data that tracked resources, not results. The government-owned DAD systems are helping to open up the “black box” of aid. DADs help not only to monitor and track aid but also to provide information on the results of projects financed with tsunami aid. By showing where the aid efforts or projects are concentrated, DADs also (1) show areas with a high risk of waste, competition, fraud, and corruption and (2) help identify areas where the needs of affected populations are not fully addressed.

Although FTS and DADs help establish an efficient and effective audit trail of tsunami-related aid, they are not audit tools, and they remain works in progress. While they provide great coverage and reliability than were provided in the past, related verification mechanisms are in their infancy.

Challenges Ahead

The implementation of an international, geographical approach to planning, monitoring, and auditing disaster-related aid poses many challenges. Important questions, such as the following, will need to be addressed:

  • Should a single, integrated system be developed or should all stakeholders (donors, channels, and implementers) use their own systems?
  • If a single system is developed, who should own it?
  • If the systems of multiple stakeholders are used, would it be possible to link the information from these systems?
  • How can we make sure that the data entered in the system are complete and accurate?
  • Should one international, agreed-upon geocode be used, or should every country or region use its own local zip code?
  • Can we reach international agreement on standards and definitions?


Using geographical information to audit disaster-related aid holds promise and has already been implemented successfully, as the examples in this article show. Ideally, an international GIS should be developed to help coordinate, plan, and monitor the flow of aid from source to destination in any future disaster. Such a system could facilitate the auditing of aid if all international stakeholders agree on the system’s use, consistent standards, and common definitions. Any such agreement should lead to the designation of an international audit label certifying that the holder has spent the aid money in a transparent and traceable way in accordance with specifications of the international agreement. The July 2006 report of the Tsunami Evaluation Coalition6 reached similar conclusions.

The INTOSAI task force would like to invite colleagues from other SAIs to provide us with examples of their use of geographic information in auditing disasterrelated aid and to help us in developing a methodology for these audits.

For additional information, contact Karola Rentenaar, Netherlands Court of Audit at or visit the task force Web site:

1 For more information, see &c=chbad.
2 Natural Gas: Factors Affecting Prices and Potential Impacts on Consumers (GAO-06-420T,
February 13, 2006).
3 A flash appeal is the way that the many agencies responding to a sudden humanitarian crisis coordinate their
responses and present a unified set of needs to donors. A flash appeal may be developed into a consolidated appeal
if the emergency continues beyond 6 months.
4 For more information, see
5 See
6 Joint Evaluation of the International Response to the Indian Ocean Tsunami: Synthesis Report (London: July 2006)
and Funding the Tsunami Response (London: July 2006). Both reports are available at