Government is learning what open data means one step at a time. And on June 11, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) took a large step forward in its own open data efforts by releasing a new data visualization tool that allows the average person to answer questions about his or her region’s history of natural and man-made disasters.
Users can filter through raw data to learn about the number of disaster declarations made – events like fires, storms, snow, typhoons and terrorist attacks – by state, county or tribal nation. The tool has graphs and charts demonstrating financial costs associated with the events, along with links to FEMA resources that encourage disaster preparation. The tool is built on data sets that FEMA had already made available, but to most people, data in an Excel spreadsheet may as well not exist.
Rafael Lemaitre, director of public affairs for FEMA, explained that this tool’s release is a piece of the OpenFEMA initiative, a commitment by the agency to educate the population about disasters through the use of data sets that don’t just belong to the agency, but to everyone.
“We’re taking an existing investment we’ve made in open data and building a tool on top of that that will make it even more accessible to a large number of people -- people who may not have an affinity for looking at reams of data in Excel spreadsheets, but have an extra minute to see that data in a way that is easy to understand and convey that information to other people,” Lemaitre said, adding that the tool also allows individuals to take action and learn what they can do in response to that data.
"For instance, the importance of preparing for disasters," he said. "I think one of the most striking things of this tool is you’ll be hard pressed to find any county in the United States that has not been hit by some natural or man-made disaster.”
From concept to execution, the tool took about one year to create, Lemaitre said. The agency first published the tool in spring in beta form, without all of its features, before the official full release on June 11. But now that the tool is public, the agency hopes that when people see that disasters happen where they live and everywhere else, it will spur them to action.
“We sit on mountains of information here in government,” he said, “and our responsibility … is making sure that that data is accessible to everybody. It’s not our data. It’s everybody’s data.”
FEMA’s new open data visualization tools can be found on its website at fema.gov/data-visualization.
Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.