When disasters such as earthquakes and floods strike they normally do so without warning, often ripping the heart out of communities, changing landscapes beyond recognition and knocking out communications in the process.
In the aftermath the need to quickly gather information, map what’s happening and make risk assessments is often vital to rescue teams and the value of accurate and timely data should not be underestimated. For without an up-to-date understanding of what’s happening on the ground, how can aid agencies and governments respond accordingly?
Years ago, emergency services relied on those with local knowledge and guesswork as much as anything else, but this often meant that lives were lost and resources wasted as rescue teams struggled to cope with what unfolded in front of them.
Thankfully time, technology and wireless in particular have changed all this. Over the past few years, mobile in conjunction with the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) has emerged as an important tool for countering emergencies by delivering information and communications throughout every aspect of the disaster management lifecycle.
Such solutions integrate hardware, software and data so that it can be managed, analysed and displayed to give first responders important geographic information about scenes that confront them, often in real-time.
Today, they are used by emergency services at home and abroad to bring them up-to-the-minute spatial information to incidents ranging from major road traffic accidents and security threats to earthquakes and floods.
‘It’s the difference between a picture and words,’ says Andy Kerr, senior commercial manager at Astrium GEO-Information Services (Infoterra Ltd), a company specialising in this technology for rescue and fire services at home and abroad.
‘That old adage where a picture tells a thousand words – if you’re looking at a map with hazard data, risk data and points of interest then obviously you can relate to where those sit for your particular incident as it progresses,’ he says.
MapAction, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), has been using GIS to help deliver vital data in map form to disaster emergencies since 2004, covering the Asian tsunami, major earthquakes, volcanoes and floods in its time.
‘Their role is to provide map content for all the local NGOs and agencies immediately after these problems happen and they often get a ride on the army helicopters as they survey the damage along the coastline or an interior, using mobile devices to capture aerial photos and live data when in the air,’ explains Nick Chapallaz, head of marketing strategy at Esri UK.
MapAction uses ArcGIS solutions supplied by Esri to collate diverse datasets, topography, and satellite imagery and to create dedicated, real-time maps of disaster areas.
‘They then bring this back to base and collate it and get that [data] out to all NGOs so there is a clipped, consistent and clear view of exactly what’s going on where. They can also take this data back out on those devices when they go back into the field.
‘So, in Sri Lanka they hopped on helicopters every day and collected data on their mobile devices either sending back or synching on their return at the end of the day,’ he adds.
Chapallaz explains that these GIS mappers also take information from reliable sources and plot this accurately using the ArcGIS Desktop software on toughbooks, updating this in real-time and distributing both electronically and via hard copies as a crisis unfolds.
‘They also take satellite feeds from around the world wirelessly via mobile satellite broadband data links which give them a connection back to base,’ he adds. ‘So there might be the UK database, the field database and a satellite database in terms of links.’
MapAction says that during 2008, which was a fairly typical year, such technology helped in the wake of three major disasters that together changed the lives of more than 4.3 million people.
‘GIS is massively important and has completely revolutionised the way those incidents are managed, while MapAction is now seen as central to helping around the world,’ says Chapallaz.
‘What we’re finding with a lot of the global incidents is that people are using mobile devices to collect, collate and store the data centrally so it can be accessed over mobile devices. So we certainly see this as a change in the way in which GIS is used,’ he adds. ‘It’s also being deployed in the cloud as well, becoming much faster and dynamic in the way it can be used.
Futhermore, some of this technology has been available on iPhones, BlackBerrys and Windows 7 devices via free apps, with the iPhone app having been enormously successful in places like Christchurch, New Zealand, where people were using a live website to capture, view, exchange and store data.’
Of course, fire, floods and even minor earthquakes affect the UK too. For his part, Kerr has been deploying GIS solutions to bluelight services here in the form of SAFEcommand, an integrated suite of data management, GIS mobile and emergency solutions that connects those in the field back to headquarters in real-time.
With specific point solutions like satellite navigation, radio to HQ and other information databases having been used for years by emergency services, Kerr says that Astrium GEO-Information Services saw this as the future.
‘In a nutshell, with this you have a suite of products that are fully integrated,’ he says. ‘Data connections are done over 3G and status or operational data can go over 3G or TETRA. So what we can do is run the systems with hazard information, risk documents etc going over 3G while communications, status updates and automatic vehicle location traffic can go over TETRA so we can actually separate out the data and choose which bell we use based on its priority.’
With GIS though Kerr says the biggest issue is the validity and accuracy of data.
‘People always get blown away by the glossy front-end but the back-end management, capture and data is so important,’ he says. ‘We’ve also been looking into in-building navigation, taking GPS and putting it into a building. If we can do that and feed that into the mobile data solution in the field it gives a commander at an incident a massive advantage as to what he can see and track.
‘The other thing is using secure satellite comms for accessing data so we’re not bound to LAN networks,’ he adds. ‘There are lots of people doing individual components of this and we’re looking to integrate this in one common solution so that information, regardless of where it’s captured, is visible anywhere using one tool to view it all.’
Interestingly, both Chapallaz and Kerr believe that the advent of LTE and similar technologies on the horizon will be game changers for them, adding depth to the information gathered and enabling users to share resource information more efficiently, both in emergency responder scenarios abroad and those closer to home.
‘Technologies like LTE mean we can start accessing data more dynamically, so rather than holding data on a vehicle and updating when near a GPRS connection, all of a sudden we can deliver that data in real-time anywhere,’ adds Kerr.