A firefighter and disaster responder since he was 18, Russ Johnson talks about dealing with life-threatening crises like a veteran plant operations manager might discuss a repeatable business process. He has made a professional career of leading and analyzing responses to large-scale emergencies with an eye toward improving outcomes. Wild forest fire, flood, earthquake, locust infestation, drought, tsunami—Johnson has managed or supported responses to all of these. And foremost among the tools he cites for dealing with such crises is the map.
“When you are dealing with emergencies, particularly larger scale emergencies, everything revolves around the map,” says Johnson, 64, a former chief of fire operations for the San Bernardino National Forest who 10 years ago became public safety director at Esri. “Where is the damage, where do you need to do improvement work, where do you need to allocate resources? What are the search and rescue priorities? Where is the infrastructure damage that you need to temporarily get it reinstated?”
That these questions (and many others) all can be expressed in terms of geographic information system (GIS) data has been a mission for Esri since the early years of Johnson’s firefighting career. But while the principle of the “layered maps with intelligence” has remained, other aspects of the GIS field have changed. Among them:
- A high-level global view, ready for drill down. Johnson’s team maintains a high-level view of emergencies around the globe and will create a map view of an impact area if one of the incidents becomes “very complex.” (His team offers to donate assistance to relevant government agencies, many of whom are customers.)
- Analytics and projections. Combining a host of data sources that are both static and dynamic helps responders anticipate what is likely to occur next. Typical data sources include images from ground level, satellites and aircraft with heat sensors, population records, weather reports and forecasts, flood zones and topography, road positions, locations of homes and other buildings, and seismic data.
- Timeliness of updates. In his last job in the field 10 years ago, Johnson says he received thermal imagery detailing wild fires every morning 5 or 6 a.m. from aircraft that flew over the affected area the night before. Now, he says, web-based maps can display images taken two minutes prior, uploaded to a cloud-based system and displayed on a screen.
- Wider accessibility, including mobile devices. The ease-of-use of the systems makes the disaster response data more accessible to more people. Johnson says he once depended on GIS experts who understood how to manipulate data to create paper maps. Now responders in the field can view regularly updated GIS visualizations and other data on their smartphones.
“It used to be we were always wondering how we were going to get the data. The challenge now is not getting the data but it is getting the right data that supports the function and the right job,” he says.
During the Tsunami in Japan, a Data Discovery
During the aftermath of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Johnson says his team assembled a map of the country using aerial and satellite imagery. The general outlines of the disaster emerged in steps, he says. Where the tsunami hit. Data on population centers. Effects on the transportation network and power grid.
While working with colleagues in Japan, from Esri and two universities, Johnson says that they learned that the Honda Corp. tracks vehicles sold in the country. The automaker donated that data to Johnson’s team. “We were able to see where vehicles were traveling, and more importantly, where they were not, which were good indications of where road outages were,” he adds. Such data adds a layer of insight to where survivors could find shelter.
Esri also charted social media posts geographically. Additional data from the Pacific Disaster Center provided updates about the potential for a second tsunami. Johnson’s team also charted the impact of the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant that followed the tsunami and earthquake.
In the interview, Johnson cites two challenges for continued improvements in the effective use of GIS systems for disaster response. One is network connectivity in the field. Sometimes it’s a problem, he says, but in general field communications continues to improve.
A more serious challenge is what Johnson refers to as “cultural barriers” among government agencies. Some officials fear the technology, or do not understand how it can be used—and this prevents them from sharing information that can benefit responders in the field.
“There are organizations [that] for whatever reason are fearful of sharing their information back and forth and that becomes really critical for disasters. Because, as you know, disasters do not recognize political boundaries so the ability to share information and have a common view of the same data so that you are making coordinated, collaborative type decisions that everybody can execute on” can mean lives saved, he says.
Some government authorities may have legitimate reasons not to share data, but Johnson says there are techniques available to share data needed for disaster responders while safeguarding the rest. “We’ve got to overcome the cultural barriers about sharing information,” he adds.
Michael Goldberg is editor of Data Informed. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.