City of Los Angeles Information Technology Agency uses Google Maps to visually share with citizens the latest need-to-know information regarding mudslides, wildfires, and other events.
Among its many responsibilities, the City of Los Angeles Information Technology Agency (ITA) is tasked with deploying technology to share critical information with the sprawling city’s four million residents during emergencies.
Before 2016, ITA conveyed urgent information to residents in the traditional way, text on the city’s website. To communicate geographically relevant information, ITA posted PDF maps, which residents would need to download from the City of Los Angeles website. Website traffic was low and the relevance of the city’s website during an emergency was also low.
“It was classic, old-school government, in which large amounts of text and static maps were published, often on channels that weren’t easy to access. So, we weren’t always getting the word out like we needed to,” says Ted Ross, General Manager and Chief Information Officer for City of Los Angeles Information Technology Agency. Because the PDF maps had to be manually created and distributed, they might not be up-to-date during emergencies. And residents had to find their own location on the map—which wasn’t ideal during an emergency, especially for those away from home or in unfamiliar surroundings.
A more effective strategy was required for communicating vital information to the diverse communities throughout the city. The opportunity to try something new came in early 2016, as Southern Californians braced for the “Godzilla” El Niño—a powerful storm system that threatened to bring one storm after another like a conveyor belt.
“While we can publish lists of resource information on the web and push all sorts of text messages out to people, it’s much easier to convey information visually,” says Ted. “I felt one of the best ways to prepare residents for storms was to bring the essential information together into one picture—a map. Then, add layers like evacuation shelters, sandbag stations, local hardware stores, and real-time weather.”
“By only offering the essential key layers of information on Google Maps and making it easy for residents to access, we can deliver what people need to know, when they need to know it.”
Ted Ross, General Manager and Chief Information Officer for City of Los Angeles Information Technology Agency
Using Google Maps as its platform along with data from Google business databases, The National Weather Service, and other sources, ITA published layers of information on the City of Los Angeles El Niño Watch page. The page features a Google Map of the region. Residents can select information layers to display on the map. For example, on a map, residents could view public alerts, flooded streets, landslides, power outages, and traffic, plus get turn-by-turn directions to needed resources, such as evacuation shelters.
“For our El Niño map, we leveraged additional non-geographic information from Google, like the locations of local hardware stores,” Ted says. “We put ourselves into the shoes of homeowners. What they would want to prepare for the rains, such as stocking up on sandbags, caulking, wood, and other supplies, as well as, what resources they would need during a heavy rainstorm, including evacuation shelters for people, animals, and so on.”
Late last year, a completely different climate-related event, epic wildfires, swept across the metro area. Los Angeles grappled with the worst fire season in California history. The Creek and Skirball fires required the quick evacuation of more than 150,000 people.
The City of Los Angeles was prepared. Using a Google Map on an ITA-produced web page for residents, Angelenos could quickly locate the wildfires and nearby evacuation centers and other resources and navigate to those resources. The traffic spoke for itself. The Skirball Fire map alone received 3.5 million views within 36 hours of going live.
“Government websites often have a difficult time getting attention,” Ted says. “The heavy volume of traffic we received in such a short time told us we were pushing out useful information in a highly consumable way.”
More recently, as rainstorms threatened to cause post-wildfire mudslides and flooding, ITA developed and posted a new Storm Watch web page within one hour. Similar to the El Niño page, Storm Watch uses a Google Map interface with clickable layers of information.
“By only offering the essential key layers of information on Google Maps and making it easy for residents to access, we can deliver what people need to know, when they need to know it,” says Ted. “We considered other mapping systems but chose Google Maps because of its wide public acceptance. We wanted to give residents a familiar map that they could access on a wide variety of devices to get the information they needed.”
To learn more about how Google Maps enabled the City of Los Angeles ITA to visually share with citizens the latest need-to-know information regarding natural disasters, download the paper "City of Los Angeles: Using Google Maps to inform and empower citizens."