Geographic insight key to protecting vulnerable communities during disasters

Oct 15, 2015

Geographic insight, delivered through a combination of authoritative spatial data and GIS technology, offers disaster relief agencies the greatest vantage point for determining how to best respond to an emergency.

Geographic insight, delivered through a combination of authoritative spatial data and Geographic Information System (GIS) technology, offers disaster relief agencies the greatest vantage point for determining how to best respond to an emergency, says Chris McIntosh, an international expert in using geospatial technology for large-scale disaster response.

Mr McIntosh – the Director of Public Safety Solutions for the world’s largest GIS technology company, Esri – said authoritative geospatial data and GIS sit at the heart of many disaster preparedness, response, and recovery efforts worldwide. 

“When every second counts and the stakes are high, first responders need to make decisions driven by accurate authoritative data, so they can be confident they have made the best possible choices under pressure,” he said.

Mr McIntosh said assembling the required authoritative datasets involves emergency services authorities identifying who the key information custodians are and facilitating the sharing of mission-critical data via collaborative spatial technology platforms.

“For governments and emergency services groups, the result is a more effective and coordinated response – enabling agencies to mobilise the right resources at the right place and time.

“With GIS technology, first responders can immediately visualise critical infrastructure and vulnerable community members they need to protect when disaster strikes. They can also identify and prioritise potential threats – both environmental and man-made – and develop comprehensive plans for evacuations, containment and mitigation. 

Having worked with government and disaster relief agencies as part of Esri’s Public Safety Assistance Program – a global initiative assisting organisations during large-scale disasters – Mr McIntosh and his team have helped provide first responders with actionable data needed on the ground.

“Responding to a disaster and helping towns recover is a massive task which requires a robust planning process,” Mr McIntosh said.

“To do this, we set up remote emergency response centres and provide local authorities with dynamic GIS dashboards to support efforts in reaching out to affected communities.

“By taking a geographic perspective of an unfolding disaster, emergency response groups are able to efficiently direct their limited resources to the places where they can do the most good.

“With the insight delivered through GIS technology, government agencies can then effectively dispatch first responders and optimise supply routes for relief goods,” he said.

The maps shown on these dashboards feature layers of data, including profiled populations, public infrastructure at risk or destroyed, the location of evacuation centres and hospitals, potential routes for relief goods, and live reports from social media.

“While not considered an authoritative dataset, crowdsourced information – such as that obtained through Twitter – has proven to be a powerful source of information during emergencies, particularly in areas where data is limited,” Mr McIntosh said.

“Social media breeds useful conversation and interaction. This can help crisis teams and first responders make well-informed decisions at critical times.”