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Matt Sheehan
Matt Sheehan
Matt holds an MSc in Geography and GIS. He has been working with clients solving problems with GIS for over 17 years. Matt founded WebMapSolutions whose mission is to put innovative, intuitive GIS driven applications into the hands of new and existing users.

New GIS Solutions for Disaster Management

August 26th, 2013 by Matt Sheehan

One of WebMapSolutions areas of focus is building systems which help to improve the management of disasters. As the frequency and impact of disasters increases, due to phenomena such as global warming, the need for improved tools and systems becomes ever greater. New technologies now available are greatly helping software companies such as WebMapSolutions develop mobile, centralized systems which are improving both disaster relief efforts and disaster recovery. Let’s look at some of the new GIS solutions for disaster management.

Disaster Relief

This is a coordinated multi-agency response to reduce the impact of a disaster and its long-term results. Relief activities include rescue, relocation, service repair, providing temporary shelter and emergency health care. Time is of the essence in this phase. Disaster agencies are both trying to understand the situation on the ground, and provide immediate assistance and relief to those in the affected area.

Disaster Recovery

Once the immediate emergency needs have been met, and the initial crisis is over, recovery efforts become focused on rebuilding the infrastructure, health care and rehabilitation. A detailed picture of the disaster, and impact on individuals is needed, so infrastructure and lives can be rebuilt. Disaster assessment is an important part of any recovery effort.

Mobile, GIS and Centralised Cloud Based Platforms

WebMapSolutions have been focused on GIS and intelligent map development for 15 years. Our work has centered around providing interactive pictures, rather than lists of numbers, to improve insight. Maps are in essence pictures of information. Patterns are easy to discern. They make search and data discovery, for deeper insight, far easier than wading through spreadsheets. Easy discovery and fast understand of data are crucial when time is of the essence; GIS provides these capabilities and much more.

Historically, GIS was a desktop technology. Though helpful for use during disasters, the ability to share the output from the GIS was limited.. With the advent of the Web, this sharing of output from GIS improved, office based staff with fast Internet connections began to collaborate. But it remained hard to quickly push data to the Web, and expensive to develop applications which provided tools for use with this data.

Recent advances in mobile technology, coupled with the launch of new cloud based mapping platforms, are revolutionizing the field of GIS. Now we are able to publish data to a single cloud based platform, and develop simple applications which leverage this centralized data to provide tools for field based workers, and office based analysts and executives. Fast and easy collaboration, and data sharing, real time data updates, connected/disconnected data collection, custom focused low cost apps are all now a reality. This has enormous implications for the field of disaster management.

New GIS Solutions for Disaster Management Relief

Working through a typical disaster management scenario. When a disaster occurs coordination and data collection are key. Field workers are quickly sent out to provide relief, and report on the situation on the ground. Office based staff are collating the incoming data from the field, and other sources; and building a picture of the disaster. Fast, accurate data collected and stored in one accessible location is crucial at this stage. Smartphones, iPads and Android tablets equipped with very specific apps designed for data collection under disaster conditions are dramatically improving this phase of disaster assessment and relief. Essential requirements of mobile disaster apps to be effective are:

1) The apps must be useable on multiple platform; at a minimum Apple and Android mobile products. Since field workers will have a mix of devices so called cross-platform apps are crucial.

2) The apps must be easy to install and use. Many relief workers are not GIS or technical experts, so apps need to be intuitive, with simple workflows.

3) The apps must be able to function in both connected and disconnected modes. It is not uncommon for Internet or Wi-Fi access to be down during disasters. Collecting data when disconnected, then having the ability to upload the data to the central storage area is essential.

4) Centralized storage using cloud technology is also very important. New mapping platforms such as ArcGIS Online simplify data publishing and offer a cetralized location for all data feeds to be stored and accessed. Data collected by multiple field workers, using mobile apps, is pushed to a single data source, allowing office based staff to quickly view and act on what can be real time information.

5) Socal media mobile apps are proving ever more important sources of disaster data. Citizens reporting on what they are witnessing on the ground via Facebook and Twitter form a very important data source. This data can be collated and stored using carefully designed applications; helping to provide greater insight into the impacts of the disaster.

Maps are the perfect visualization method for both data collection and assessment. Field workers can for example add points to an interactive map and attach pertinent information to that point on what they see; damage level, images, notes, documentation on citizens locations and needs. Office based staff can then take this data, and visualize it on a map. This is a powerful way to discern patterns; areas of most destruction for example. GIS also provides advanced tools to search, query and analyze this data. Simple focused Web application can be built which provide an array of tools for decision makers.

Post Disaster Recovery Apps

After the initial emergency, the next phase of disaster management is detailed assessment. In the US, tornadoes are increasingly more common. County assessment teams often comprise a mix of GIS and Red Cross volunteers. They are tasked to visit affected areas and assess parcel damage. This involves splitting into teams and visiting individually affected areas. Damage levels are assessed, photos of parcels taken and home owners interviewed. The goal is to present as detailed a picture as possible of damage and the impact on citizens, to State officials. Levels of financial relief are assessed based on this data. Historically this process involved pen, paper, digital cameras, and an extended collation process. This resulted in the generation of a damage assessment spreadsheet, which was presented to State officials.

Working with Monroe County, Michigan, WebMapSolutions have revolutionised the damage assessment process in the County, by leveraging mobile and cloud technology. Data was published to Esri’s cloud based mapping platform ArcGIS Online, and a mobile connected/disconnected application was built. The mobile app itself is:

1) Cross-platform, so runs on both iPads and Android tablets

2) Displays web maps and editable layers hosted in ArcGIS Online

3) Allows the editing of point, line and polygon features

4) Includes the ability to attach images to features

5) Presents colored parcel data on the map. Color is based on the parcel damage level; from red for total destruction to yellow for low level damage.

6) Highly configurable, so the look and feel of the app can be altered by members of the disaster assessment team.

7) Extensible; adjustments can be made quickly to customize the app for client and situational needs.

The next phase in the work will be to provide additional Web based applications to office staff to view the data, these apps includes charting capabilities, such as bar charts, and the ability to query/display data based on time. Executive dashboards and summary apps will also be included in the suite of disaster management tools. For citizens simple intelligent maps are being built to share information on the disaster as relief efforts unfold, and post disaster information.

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Categories: ArcGIS Online, cloud GIS, Mobile ArcGIS, Mobile GIS

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