How GIS technology and social media helped crisis response in Australia

As a new article at the O’Reilly Radar showed today, social data and geospatial mapping have joined the crisis response toolset. A new online application from geospatial mapping giant ESRI applies trend analysis to help responders to Australia’s recent floods create relevance and context from social media reporting. The Australian flood trends map shows how crowdsourced social intelligence provided by Ushahidi enables emergency social data to be integrated into crisis response in a meaningful way.

The combination of Ushahidi and ESRI in Australia shows that “formal and innovative approaches to information collection and analysis during disasters is possible,” said Patrick Meier, “and that there is an interface that can be crafted between official and non-official responses.” Meier is a research fellow at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and director of crisis mapping at Ushahidi and was reached via email.

Russ Johnson, ESRI’s global director for emergency response, recently spoke with the correspondent at the ESRI federal user conference in Washington, D.C. Johnson spent 32 years as a federal employee in southern California, predominantly working in the U.S. Forest Service. He was one of the pioneers who built up the FEMA incident response system, and he commanded one of the 18 teams around the nation that deploy assets in the wake of floods, fires and other disasters. At ESRI, Johnson helps the company understand the workflow and relevance of GIS for first-response operations. Our full interview is embedded below in the following video.

The world of crisis response has changed dramatically in the past several years, said Johnson. The beauty of the present historic moment is that “everybody can be a sensor,” said Johnson. “Everybody is potentially part of the network. The struggle that operators have is taking all of that free form data and trying to put into some sort of framework that makes it accurate.”

Emergency and crisis responders are faced with significant cultural barriers that have nothing to do with logging on to a website or configuring a new account, explained Johnson. “Public safety organizations are really, really resistant to change,” he said. “Technology has frightened a lot of people before social media was a new data source. It’s a new challenge that’s threatening to a lot of people. The question I pose is simple. Let’s use the first responder scenario, where you have 4-6 minutes from the time you get the call. the expectation is you’ll be on scene. Think about the possibility that before you arrive, thousands of people will have video on YouTube. They may have more situation awareness. When you arrive, you’ll be videoed, watched, and critiqued. Shouldn’t you consider that data if it can help you deploy more safely or effectively?”

Johnson said that he really likes FEMA director Fugate’s philosophy and operational mentality in that context. Fugate has emphasized that he believes the public can be a resource in crises, instead of a hindrance. The current FEMA chief is tapping social media’s potential for aiding disaster response. “There are times when agencies can’t get good intelligence,” said Johnson. “I cannot tell you how many times where we had televisions and the best information we were getting was from CNN or helicopters. There are times when it may be wrong but I’d rather have it be part of our mashup of data to help validate and inform responders.”

The technology itself has also evolved recently, said Johnson. “We used to have to have a specific person to support mission, which meant we had to drag a person trained in GIS everywhere. As the technology has evolved, and data has evolved, the tools have reached the operator and first responder level. We can now match persona, mission and task to GIS tech so that it fits them. You can get complex answers that can be generated by an operator, not a GIS geek.”

How did Haiti change the conversation?

“Everyone thought Haiti would be completely dark,” said Johnson, with all information provided by boots on the ground. In fact, social media played an important role, he said, highlighted by the efforts of Crisis Congress and others who heard those digital cries for help. Social media “brought the light on,” said Johnson, providing not just something to act on but perhaps the only thing to act on, at least initially. In subsequent crises, responders have found that crisis data, particularly when added to maps for context, can provide valuable insight long before official reports emerge.

This trend is a key issue for communities as more citizen engagement platforms emerge. “When you have a large emergency, who are the first responders? Who can get to you the most quickly? Your neighbors,” says Johnson. “if you can have a universal way to communicate to the people who can help you, that may have the only help you have. Conventionally, you think of the guys in uniforms and helmets.”

In 2011, citizens have the opportunity to shoulder more of that shared responsibility than ever.

About Alex Howard

Alexander B. Howard is a DC-based a technology writer and editor. Previously, he was the Washington Correspondent at O'Reilly Media, where he covered the voices, technologies and issues that matter in the intersection of government, technology and society. If you're feeling social, you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook or circle him on Google Plus In addition to corresponding for the O’Reilly Radar, he has contributed to the Huffington Post, Govfresh, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, National Journal, The Atlantic, CBS News and Forbes. He graduated from Colby College with a bachelor's degree in biology and sociology. Currently, he is a resident of the District of Columbia, where he lives with his greyhound, wife, power tools, plants and growing collection of cast iron pans, many of which are frequently used to pursue his passion for good cooking.

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