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How the Greater Cincinnati Area Uses Open Data to Save Lives

The Regional Asset Verification Emergency Network, or RAVEN911, pools together data on infrastructure and overlays it on a map to let first responders know what buildings are worth note.

This story was originally published on Data-Smart City Solutions

In September of 2008, Hurricane Ike barreled into the Greater Cincinnati area, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. Emergency response teams from counties across the tristate area of Greater Cincinnati encountered the same frustrations in their efforts to manage the crisis: their outmoded paper maps and a lack of information sharing across jurisdictional lines prevented them from visually ascertaining the scale of the emergency, identifying critical infrastructure, or locating regional resources.

In the months following the storm, the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments (OKI), the Hamilton County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) and the city of Cincinnati Fire Department (CFD) teamed up to develop a regional map-based program designed to enhance situational awareness in times of disaster, and thus prevent problems like the ones experienced during Hurricane Ike from reoccurring. The team started with a highly customizable version of Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping software created by the Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), the private GIS vendor. It overlaid the map with numerous components created from data gathered on critical local infrastructure like chemical facilities, fire stations, hospitals, and schools. It then improved the layered maps with tools that use real-time data like weather, traffic, and social media feeds.  The Southwestern Ohio, Southeastern Indiana and Northern Kentucky Urban Areas Security Initiative (SOSINK) and OKI pooled their federal funding with local tax dollars to finance the data collection and technology costs of the project. After two years of tireless data gathering, the Regional Asset Verification Emergency Network, or RAVEN911, was released in September of 2010.

Since then, RAVEN911 has proven to be a useful and multifaceted tool in handling an array of emergency situations like extreme weather events, bomb threats, crowd control, and more. In the event of a chemical spill, for example, an emergency response team can log into RAVEN911 from a computer or mobile device and enter the location of the leak, the chemical type, and the leaking device. The system adds information from live weather feeds and maps layered with residential and infrastructural data to determine the path of the chemical plume and potential population impacts. Factoring in these variables, RAVEN911 then defines evacuation areas and containment zones.


Creating a tool that draws data across city, county, and state lines was no easy task. David Shuey, the GIS Division Manager at OKI, explained the necessity of basing the system on a regional scale: “Emergencies don’t conform to political boundaries…any emergency that impacts multiple counties had the potential to create a blind spot for the responders responding outside of their home county.”

However, any time governments are asked to share data across traditional silos, privacy concerns inevitably arise. To assure agencies that their data was safe with RAVEN911, Shuey and his team met with target departments across the region to go over their privacy policies and security measures. The team assured them that the system only grants access to emergency responders that have been vetted by the Cincinnati Police Department. What’s more, the login credentials required by ESRI are encrypted and expire periodically, making it extremely difficult for undesired users to get into the system and impossible for them to stay there. These measures proved enough to allay the fears of data providers, and have kept their information secure ever since.

Soon after the project got underway, however, OKI realized that many of the region’s agencies lacked the information that they needed.  The extent and variety of the map’s information would count for little if end users could not trust it to be accurate and up-to-date, so, armed with data to-do lists, photography gear, and GPS equipment, OKI staffers and members of the Cincinnati Fire Department took to the streets to document thousands of critical structures in the years leading up to RAVEN911’s unveiling. Nowadays, the team only has to revisit their contributing agencies annually to refresh that data.

Although RAVEN911’s infrastructure components cover only Greater Cincinnati, many of its tools that use national-level, real-time data—like its social media scanner and weather feed—can be accessed by emergency responders around the country and configured to their geographical area. The extent to which these tools have been used outside of the region has surprised Shuey. “I am constantly amazed by the number of emergency responders from outside the Cincinnati region who sign up for access to RAVEN911 on a weekly basis,” he said. The system has been activated to coordinate responses to some of the largest disasters in the nation’s recent history—during the Aurora Theater and Sandy Hook Elementary shootings, Superstorm Sandy, and the Boston Marathon Bombing, RAVEN911 was there to help.

As unique an accomplishment as RAVEN911 has been for Greater Cincinnati, Shuey feels that other regions have the means to replicate it. “A primary function of RAVEN911 is its ability to act as a centralized repository for critical infrastructure and assets across the greater Cincinnati region.  Most regions possess similar data, but generally don’t have a vehicle for sharing it regionally. Through collaboration of individual agencies, data could be consolidated into a common operating picture similar to RAVEN911.”

However, the process behind RAVEN911’s creation proves that constructing such a mapping system is not as simple as ordering up data and throwing it into a map. The RAVEN team made this feat possible by securing the trust of all those involved. They fostered collaboration across jurisdictions by establishing strong data security measures and then explaining those measures to target agencies. And by remaining firm in their pledge to use only quality data, they earned the confidence of the EMS forces using this system. RAVEN’s success teaches hopeful replicators that beneath the layers of mapping must lie a foundational core of diligence and cooperation.