The sprawling metropolis of Miami-Dade County, Fla., has endured hurricanes, floods, earthquakes — even the occasional tsunami warning — earning it the dubious distinction of being one of the most disaster-prone urban regions in the country.

So it’s no wonder that county officials have harnessed GIS, which captures, analyzes and displays geographical information, as a pivotal weapon in their ongoing battle with the forces of nature. In Miami-Dade, the technology transforms raw data into a vast range of interactive graphical maps, each of which tells a story.

And that means residents of Miami-Dade’s 35 municipalities are safer, better informed and more prepared than ever before. “The Police Department, the Planning Department, emergency management, fire, water and sewer — they all use GIS in different ways,” said Ali Fain, account executive at GIS software maker Esri, who works closely with Miami-Dade on its GIS implementation. “For productivity, enhanced analysis and basically just to provide better service.”

GIS in Operation

Given Miami’s role as a tourist mecca and host to national sporting events like the Super Bowl and Pro Bowl, using GIS as both a planning tool and in assisting the county and its cities with the unexpected makes a lot of sense.

In February 2010, GIS played a central role in preparations for the Super Bowl — 75,000 visitors attended the event at Miami’s Sun Life Stadium. The system showed city officials and police which hotels players were staying at, where the big parties would be held and the locations of various dignitaries. “Everything needed to be mapped,” said Soheila Ajabshir, GIS manager for the Miami-Dade County Department of Emergency Management. “We needed to be able to show where situations might be unstable.”

But just as Miami-Dade’s GIS team was preparing to activate the county’s system a few weeks before the event, Ajabshir and her team got word of the devastating earthquake in Haiti. With one of the largest Haitian populations in the U.S., Miami quickly became the hub for earthquake relief efforts and communications, and Miami-Dade’s GIS staff was called in to assist. The GIS layers created to prepare the region for the Super Bowl came in handy.

“The Haitian population here needed help and support,” Ajabshir said. “We tracked every plane bringing Americans here from Haiti, including how many passengers, with how many children and how many people were going to Miami hospitals. Orchestrating all this fell on our shoulders.”

The county also tracked U.S. donations flowing to the earthquake-ravaged nation using its GIS, and the GIS team identified the greatest concentration of Haitian residents in the county so emergency officials could set up disaster assistance centers where they were most needed.

County GIS Technicalities

The backbone of Miami-Dade’s GIS implementation for emergency management is the Florida Interoperable Picture Processing for Emergency Response (FLIPPER), a set of programs built using ArcGIS Server and Esri’s Flex Viewer. It’s integrated with WebEOC, a Web-enabled crisis information management system from ESi that provides secure, real-time information. FLIPPER gets data from WebEOC and integrates it with additional live data feeds.

The GIS uses data organized in layers, each using a different representation. Crime incidents might be stored as points in one layer, for example, while properties are stored as polygons. Miami-Dade’s GIS has approximately 400 layers of data that are shared by the various agencies. FLIPPER allows users to view more than 6,000 critical facilities, such as schools, fire and police departments, hazardous materials sites and hospitals within a specific vicinity. The system uses a long list of tools — Twitter, Bing Maps, hazardous plume modeling, live traffic, the U.S. National Grid and population estimates — all tied to FLIPPER and viewable via a unified map interface.

Maps and Data

Among the data used by Miami-Dade’s Department of Emergency Management are the locations of underground sewer and gas lines, evacuation centers — and even the locations of consulate offices. Should a hurricane strike the Florida coast, the system could steer displaced residents to evacuation routes, as well as to distribution points for ice and water. In the event of a widespread power outage, health officials could find the residents dependent on electricity for their medical needs.

In its response to the Haiti earthquake, Miami-Dade County also used the GIS to create maps of the devastated area to assist the National Guardsmen who were sent in by the U.S. government. “They needed to go into heavily populated buildings, but they didn’t know where they were,” said Ajabshir. “We were able to create maps to accurately spot where victims might be.”

The system was also called into service during the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill to help officials track the spill’s progress and response efforts.

Officials in Miami-Dade, which is home to more Cuban-Americans than anywhere else in the U.S., know they can count on the GIS should they need information related to that population. “If there’s a problem in the Caribbean, say if [President Fidel] Castro were to die, we could have mass migration,” Ajabshir said. “A change in the government could also mean demonstrations. We need to know all the possible demonstration sites.”

Other Uses for GIS

Emergency management isn’t the only use for Miami-Dade County’s GIS — it also provides predictive analysis in a number of areas. The county’s GIS helps officials identify population trends, such as where new housing developments might be built, which is information the county uses to decide where to buy land for parks, for example. “The Park Department has to buy land before development,” said Ajabshir. “So we have to anticipate where the population is moving.”

The Miami-Dade County Enterprise Technology Services Department created the Crime Analysis System for the Police Department — an application that helps law enforcement officials see crime trends throughout the county. And the GIS team created the Sex Offender/Predator Residence Search, which shows the concentration of convicted sex offenders in different parts of the county. Police officers and residents can type in an address and learn the locations of sex offenders. The search results provide offenders’ names, photos, and whether they are violating the law that prohibits them from being within 2,500 yards of a school.

Every year, more than 3 million people use Miami-Dade’s GIS applications and make nearly 70 million map requests. Residents can view interactive maps displaying neighborhood demographics, school trends — even the best scuba diving conditions. Government agencies and businesses use the technology to view maps showing real estate trends and capital improvement projects. “Anything the resident wants to know about property, they can find in our GIS,” Ajabshir said. The most popular application is My Home, which lets home-owners and potential homebuyers see property tax and home sales information by searching for owner name or property address.

Additionally insurers regularly use the GIS applications to identify risks, a particularly helpful feature considering the danger of flooding in Miami-Dade County. If a GIS map shows that a specific area is particularly prone to flooding, the county might consider constructing a new canal. “We’ve learned that if we spend a few million [dollars] in advance,” Ajabshir said, “we can save the insurers and the county millions.”

The same GIS flood maps can also show the presence of “repetitive loss,” a red flag for insurance fraud. “Now if people file for damages more than once, we see it,” she said.

Next Steps

When it comes to maintaining a GIS, the most expensive and challenging part is getting the data and existing maps into a digital, usable format — a stumbling block for many local governments, said Esri’s Fain. Even still, the technology is quickly taking off within the public sector.

Overall, governments and private companies in the U.S. are spending about twice as much on GIS data than on GIS applications and services. And the market for such data has grown at an annual compound rate of about 15.5 percent for the past eight years — twice the growth rate of GIS software and services, according to market research company Daratech.

Miami, the county’s largest municipality with about 400,000 residents, has its own public GIS, which it maintains separately from the county. By mutual agreement, the county and city share GIS data, and the county supplies and updates the vast majority of the data that the city uses.

As for the next step in Miami-Dade County’s GIS, Ajabshir would like to see residents contribute more data. In the event of an emergency or natural disaster, for example, the county has already started encouraging residents to e-mail or text message information about damage to their homes and neighborhoods.

This level of citizen involvement would result in GIS becoming even more critical in getting help to disaster zones even faster, because emergency personnel would see a graphical view of the danger zones. “It’s not just data — it’s problem solving,” Ajabshir said. “Every map tells a story.”

Laurie J. Flynn  |  Contributing Writer

Laurie J. Flynn is a California native who has spent much of her career as a newspaper reporter writing about the exploits of Silicon Valley executives for The New York Times. Her work has also appeared in the San Jose Mercury News, Real Simple, the San Francisco Chronicle and other regional and national publications.