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Susan Smith
Susan Smith
Susan Smith has worked as an editor and writer in the technology industry for over 16 years. As an editor she has been responsible for the launch of a number of technology trade publications, both in print and online. Currently, Susan is the Editor of GISCafe and AECCafe, as well as those sites’ … More »

URISA’s GISCorps’ Behind the Scenes Support for Hurricanes and Other Disasters

September 7th, 2017 by Susan Smith

URISA’s GISCorps has a volunteer presence all over the world who contribute their GIS expertise through data, creating easy to consume visuals for those decision makers and public safety officials to be able to respond to various threats and allocate resources where needed. Using ArcGIS Online, volunteers in one part of the world can provide help remotely without needing to be onsite or using limited onsite resources.

In an interview with GISCorps founder Shoreh Elhami and URISA executive director Wendy Nelson, they offer a broader understanding of what GISCorps is about and how it can help.

Is ArcGIS Online able to generate a setting for help, i.e., website, app, or whatever resource might be needed, during a natural disaster event? And how soon might that be available to the public? 

ArcGIS Online (AGO) can be used to create a variety of story maps. Those story maps as well as any AGO based web apps can be embedded in any website and very quickly. A good example of that is the web app that our volunteers embedded in Fort Bend County’s website on road closures. Another example is a story map that was built by NAPSG shortly after the disaster, our volunteers also assisted with that project.

How has the GIS relief effort for Hurricane Harvey been handled by GISCorps so far and what are the plans going forward?

26 of our volunteers have been working on mapping road closures in Fort Bend County. The information originates from County’s website, emails, and also tweets. The Web app has been helpful to residents, first responders, and the county staff. The project was lead by two of our volunteers who worked with GISCorps Core Committee members on managing the project. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) also requested the assistance of a GIS programmer to pull data from the FEMA site on an ongoing basis. The GISCorps Recruitment team selected a volunteer within 30 hours and put the volunteer  in contact with CDC. We also asked our volunteers to contribute to NAPSG story map. We are currently on stand-by and ready to assist with other projects at this time, be it for Harvey or Irma.

Hurricane Harvey weather map

How do the projects for Hurricane Harvey and Katrina differ or are they the same? What are the priorities?

Quite different. For Katrina, we deployed 30 volunteers onsite, the option to assist remotely didn’t even exist. Volunteers packed up their bags, laptops, and other essentials and head over to the affected areas within a couple of days. For Harvey (and many other disasters of the past few years), we haven’t had to send anyone anywhere. Volunteers work from their home or offices and have been effective in different ways. For Katrina, the priority was to help with the rescue efforts at first (locate people under stress and report to the coast guard) and then, the recovery phase began where volunteers made 100’s of maps and conducted lots of analysis). For Harvey, crowd sourcing and information from social media have become major sources of information for developing interactive maps to first responders and other affected population.]

What types of relief efforts does GISCorps generally deal with?

We have been called to almost every disaster since 2004 Asian tsunami. While in some our volunteers have collected post disaster data, in quite a few, they were able to conduct analysis to identify the extent of damage. Our volunteers have also participated in many crowd sourcing projects, have conducted remote sensing analysis (change detection for pre and post disaster), and have developed web maps and apps.

How would people in stricken areas learn to rely on this service, or would it be not visible to them? 

The best way to inform residents of these types of services is the social media as well as the regular media outlets (TV, newspaper, radio).

How much can GISCorps accomplish by ” remote help ” assistance? 

A lot. Most of GISCorps’ more than 200 projects have been completed remotely. An organization is either overwhelmed with an emergency situation, like Hurricane Harvey, and are using all of their resources on the ground, so they turn to URISA’s GISCorps to provide the tools they need.

The other situation is when an organization has no GIS expertise on staff and no ability to fund a position, so they turn to URISA’s GISCorps to fill a specific need. An example of this type of project is a volunteer using imagery for a change detection project for national lands in  Mozambique.

How is it organized? 

It’s a well-run machine. There is a Core Committee within GISCorps that evaluates incoming project requests; determines suitability to the organization’s mission; develops job descriptions; queries the volunteer database for needed skills, and recruits individuals for projects. Oftentimes, depending on the breadth of the project, a manager is assigned who follows up with the agencies requesting assistance and oversees the project

What’s the biggest challenge involved in ” remote help ” emergency response?  

Communication can be challenging at times especially when volunteers come from around the globe. Another challenge relates to connectivity as many countries do not have fast Internet connection. Lastly, I’d say covering shifts 24/7 are sometimes difficult, though, almost always volunteers help one another.

Who directs what priorities are since there’s so much need? 

We run our communication on Slack for larger crowd sourcing projects. We create several channels for various groups and purposes. The Core Committee which is the decision making body of GISCorps, has a separate channel and that’s where we decide on protocols, building documents, and workflows.  The conversation on Slack is non-stop especially for larger deployment. A good example of that was a recent project where we assisted WHO’s Global Polio Eradication initiative; over 12,000 messages were generated over the course of 5 weeks.

If there’s an opportunity at some point, note that URISA’s GISCorps accomplishes its goals through the selflessness of volunteers and the Core Committee members (100% volunteer based). We do accept monetary donations, to support administrative functions which we hope can evolve into  paid staff at some point. We’ve already seen how this program has had positive impacts around the world. The potential of this program to have an even greater impact, with staff support, is enormous.

Shoreh Elhami can be reached at:

Wendy Nelson at:

Beni Patel is a GISCorps volunteer in Texas who has been leading the Harvey projects (mapping road closures and tweets). Beni is also a Katrina veteran who spent a couple weeks on the frontlines in Mississippi in 2005.  Beni Patel can be reached at:


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Categories: analytics, ArcGIS, ArcGIS Online, Big Data, climate change, cloud, data, disaster relief, drones, Esri, field GIS, geocoding, geospatial, GIS, government, GPS, hurricanes, mapping, mobile, photogrammetry, remote sensing, resilient cities, satellite imagery, spatial data, storm surge

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