What’s the current state of GIS for emergency planning and response?

by Matt Ball on August 26, 2011

With the hurricane season quite visibly upon us here in the United States, coupled with a high-profile but incidental earthquake, disaster planning and response are top-of-mind with most GIS managers. This has also been a year of heavy flooding along both the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, and record droughts across Texas. With all these natural disasters piling up, it’s a busy time for analytical modeling, risk mapping, mapping vulnerable areas, and executing emergency response plans.

GIS has proven itself time and again as an integral tool in planning and responding to disasters, and we’ve come a long way in our capabilities to communicate and incorporate up-t0-date details about unfolding events. The trend is for more frequent and intense natural disasters worldwide due to increased populations in vulnerable areas, and heightened global change. While GIS continues to advance to address the issue of planning and response, there are some key areas in need of further development.

Simulation and Planning

Planning for an unfolding disaster requires both a picture of current conditions as well as a simulation of events that are about to unfold. For instance, flooding risk assessment in the United States largely uses simulation software known HEC-Res from the Army Corps of Engineers. While HEC-Res provides accurate predictions, IBM has developed a much more accurate flood prediction software that couplesa detailed model of river behavior, with an analytics engine, an accurate weather modeling system, a sensor network of stream gauges, and high-speed computers to generate a model that is up to 100 times faster than other prediction models, and with up to 100 hours warning of coming conditions.

The coupling of real-time feeds, map-based visualization, and simulation of repercussions have been a standard approach for some time, but this illustration of a research project in action, shows the possibilities with currently available technology. With greater precision in our models, more detailed models that factor in complex weather behaviors, and high-performance computing, we could greatly improve our understanding of unfolding events. Water and weather follow paths that are predictable, and our understanding will only improve as the accuracy of our maps and models improve, and as our sensor networks grow to provide up-to-date data.

Verifying Truth

With a fast-evolving disaster, much of the issues that are faced with the response revolve around knowing the current conditions, communicating priorities, and coordinating the response with the available resources. Curating reliable information in a fast-moving disaster is something that has been a struggle in the crisis mapping community.

The ability to filter and verify real-time data is something that the crisis mapping software Ushahidi is addressing with the open source platform SwiftRiver that gives users the means to curate and add context to information, filtering by subject, and allowing users to eliminate feeds from certain people or add weight to more reliable sources. The ability is critical to curate information, to sort it, identify keywords, determine locations, eliminate duplicates, and determine how influential or popular content is from different actors.

With more data for disaster response coming from the affected community, as well as dispersed aid workers with common mobile devices, the ability to quickly determine the picture on the ground will provide a great boon to disaster responsiveness. The GIS toolset can aid this effort by quickly placing this information into geographic context, allowing responders to quickly create evolving maps of priorities and response actions regardless of their device or location.

Active Collaborative Maps

This year marks advancements in up-to-date online mapping, with feeds from social media, video, photos, and other sensors. The dynamic news maps that Esri has been developing to keep track of floods, wildfire, and now hurricanes, provide an easy interface into the big-picture implications of unfolding events. This dynamic online mapping technology is also being used to communicate local conditions and the need for action with the sharing of such detailed mapping applications as evacuation maps and routes through local government portals. The rise of the dynamic online map has now spread beyond the emergency operations center and into the hands of the public. With this easily accessible view via the Web, with little technical knowledge needed, the insight of geographic analysis becomes that much more powerful.

Geospatial analysts are challenged in such situations because they need to pull together data quickly, fuse it together, and provide actionable information to emergency responders. This rapid response effort is largely about personal connections to those that have the data, as well as coordinated plans ahead of time to ensure cooperation. With ongoing efforts such as GITA’s Geospatially Enabling Community Collaboration (GECCo) program visiting communities to make sure plans are in place, there’s a model for how local communities can pave the way for effective response.

Given that most disasters provide short planning and response windows, where quick action can have significant impacts on social and economic costs, it’s important that we continue to hone the capabilities of the toolset. The anniversary of a very high-profile GIS response effort is coming up quickly, with the tenth anniversary of 9/11. This event showed the world the potential for rapid response with a real-time picture of the emergency situation. Many lessons were learned there that continue to inform our advancements, any many more lessons need to still be realized through innovation of our tools.


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