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By any standard, 2017 was a terrible year for natural disasters in the United States. Hurricanes in Texas and Puerto Rico. Wildfires and mudslides in California. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2017 was the most expensive year on record for natural disasters. Beyond the U.S., global floods, heatwaves, and other extreme weather generated a staggering price tag of at least $306 billion in damage and recovery—nearly double that of the prior year.

For residents stranded without electricity in rural Puerto Rico or the homeless in central California, of course, those numbers matter less than the reality on the ground. As first responders raced to save lives and a grueling recovery process began, good old-fashioned grit had to be combined with new-fangled fieldwork and lots of back office tech work.

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Software For Geography

A relatively little-known type of software called Geographic Information Systems (GIS) has played an outsize role in rescue and recovery efforts. GIS-enabled products from vendors like Esri, Mapbox and Autodesk are used both to craft missions and goals for first responders and to help rebuild after the disaster.

GIS software is used for everything from building custom maps that show, for example, how many residents in an evacuation zone lack cars, or the likelihood that fires will spread over a particular ridge or valley. The primary advantage of GIS systems is that they let users correlate maps with large data sets—a huge advantage over traditional maps.

This whole process starts with first responders.

“Users start to really task individual teams that are out there in the field working the incident itself and responding to the incident,” says Esri public safety industry team lead Ryan Lanclos. This process, he adds, takes place “house by house or street by street. They both collect information and access information that feeds that decision cycle back in the operation center.”

As disasters take place, GIS tools are used to plan initial responses and gather crucial information for firefighters, EMTs, police, and other responders. For instance, municipalities may keep records of where fire hydrants are located through GIS platforms. Other responders can use data sets on, for instance, which buildings are most likely to have structural damage after an earthquake.

GIS And Natural Disasters

One example of disaster use cases for GISes comes from California. The 2016 Clayton wildfire destroyed nearly 200 single-family homes and 40 businesses. According to Emergency Management’s Adam Stone, GIS software played a crucial role in assessment and recovery.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), a state agency, contracted with an outside vendor called FireWhat to assess damage from the wildfire. FireWhat used Esri’s ArcGIS software to profile terrain, compile information on property value, keep damage assessment data and maintain a dashboard for recovery teams. The use of ArcGIS, Stone says, helped recovery teams record the status of more than 325 structures in two days of work—a process that otherwise would have taken weeks.

Imagery of rescuers pulling family pets from rubble or moving trashed cars to reopen closed roads get most of the press. But GIS platforms perform much of the less-glamorous background recordkeeping and analysis that speeds the process of disaster recovery.

GIS systems are typically used after disasters by a mixture of private sector, government, and NGO customers. Because GIS software is designed to match map data with a wide range of other records, they are used for a variety of use cases.

For instance, the federal government offers a wide range of GIS data sets covering real-time seismological data, wildfire patterns, flood maps, and many other varieties of information. State and local governments in many areas produce data sets of their own.

“GIS can answer questions about higher perimeters, for instance if there’s a hurricane “cone of uncertainty” that’s coming over a state, it helps them understand geographically how many people live within that area,” Lanclos adds. “More importantly, it’s not just how many people there are. It’s also the characteristics of that at-risk population; things like how many people are over the age of 65, how many have lack of access to a car or transportation for evacuation, and the like. So we can help in gaining a rich understanding using our analytical tools.”

Saving Lives With Software

The major advantage of GIS-based tools for natural disasters is that they cut through the clutter. Unlike traditional spreadsheets or paper-based maps (which, of course, have a place as well), GIS systems let users quickly correlate maps with large data sets. Although the learning curve is frequently steep, they offer a one-stop data management solution which helps greatly in situations where disaster responders are working out of a rickety laptop computer operated inside a converted camper.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA)’s damage assessment handbook, GIS platforms serve an important role for damage assessment.

GIS tools “can be used to augment damage assessment teams at all levels,” FEMA says. “Remote sensing data collection and analysis can be focused on areas with the most impact and visibly discernible damage, while ground teams could be directed to areas with lesser impacts that would require in-person assessments to make a damage determination.”

Meanwhile, even more complicated tech tools are slowly percolating into the disaster response world.

Drones, Maps, And Databases

Aviation giant Boeing is testing the feasibility of using drones and augmented reality to combat wildfires. A new software tool currently under testing creates an augmented reality interface to quickly sort through tracking and camera feeds from unmanned drones flying over wildfires. When viewed through an augmented reality headset, it could also generate a 3D map of the wildfire and even let users control drone paths.

An early demonstration of this technology took place in 2014 in Australia’s Wollemi National Park, which suffered large brush fires in late 2013 and early 2014. Using the drone-and-augmented reality combo, Boeing subsidiary unmanned aircraft firm Insitu Pacific was able to monitor and report the movement of wildfires at night.

In the end, all this technology is useless if it doesn’t help with recovery from natural disasters. Esri’s Lanclos notes that disaster recovery is a complicated, ongoing process that goes on for months and years. And when disasters happen, first responders and volunteers are often flying blind—mobile phone reception, internet access, and easy coordination across towns and counties is by no means guaranteed.

While GIS platforms are by no means perfect, they offer an important pathway for disaster recovery. Government, academic, and private sector contributors have created a rich selection of data sets which make disaster relief much easier. Unfortunately, the coming years are likely to have more than their share of natural disasters and other emergencies.

The next time a natural disaster happens, GIS software-equipped responders will be working hard behind the scenes, guaranteeing more people are rescued, electricity is restored more quickly, and more homes and businesses are saved. For a single piece of technology, that’s a pretty good deal.

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