Russ Johnson Talks Esri and All Things GIS

How GIS supports response and recovery, and how Esri plugs into disasters.

by / November 7, 2011
Photos and image courtesy of Esri Esri

Russ Johnson has served as the public safety and homeland security director for Esri since 1997. His responsibilities include coordinating Esri's public safety industry marketing activities in the areas of homeland security, fire, emergency medical services and disaster management. Prior to joining Esri, Johnson held fire and emergency operations positions and served in Type I National Incident Management ICS teams in a variety of positions, including safety officer, operations chief, and incident commander responding to complex federal disasters throughout the United States and other countries. He responded to a series of questions about GIS mapping and the integration of social media into disaster response and recovery operations.

Question: More jurisdictions use computer maps for response and recovery activities. Where do you think the adoption of digital maps for use in the emergency operations center (EOC) at state and local levels is at in the United States?

Answer: There is a growing demand and desire for dynamic situational awareness delivered in the form of digital maps within the emergency management community. I believe we have only begun to scratch the surface on how dynamic data that’s fused with GIS-driven digital maps can support various missions within the emergency management/crisis management domains.

What are some of the creative ways people are using digital maps for disaster response and recovery?

Photo: Russ Johnson, director of public safety and homeland security, Esri

We have seen some very effective GIS deployments supporting preparedness, response and recovery over the last year.

During the recent Hurricane Irene, we saw utility companies using projected hurricane paths to identify potential system damage. This enabled them to stage crews and equipment in locations where recovery could be initiated quickly to restore critical services.

After the devastation of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, we saw various GIS applications supporting response and recovery. The common operating picture was consuming multiple feeds to support initial damage assessment and establish resource allocation priorities. This included fusing AVL feeds from the Honda Corp. that tracks all Honda cars in Japan. When the tracking data was integrated into the common operational picture, the absence of tracks in various areas pointed out potential damage and disruption to the traffic network. Social media (particularly from Ushahidi) helped validate power outages, hazards, emergency assistance, catastrophic damage, etc.

Other GIS applications assisted in long-term recovery. One such application was used to estimate debris type and amount. The application was used to identify where certain types of debris could be routed to and piled (temporarily), where debris could be piled and burned, and where environmentally harmful debris could be treated, managed or removed.

During the tornadoes in the Midwest earlier this year, handheld mobile devices were deployed with digital maps for initial damage assessment. In many cases, these mobile devices with GPS capability enabled personnel to find their exact location in the field when all existing land markers had been destroyed. They could send their location along with an initial triage report immediately back to the EOC or [incident command post]. With numerous devices deployed, the information was wirelessly transmitted and displayed on the primary maps within the common operating picture.

We are seeing more and more implementations of the common operating picture that support specific missions.

What would it take for a jurisdiction that is not using computer mapping to begin doing so? Is there a significant upfront investment in equipment or software?

I think it is important to understand that geospatial technology is a capability, not an application. If a geospatial platform is implemented, almost any type of application can be developed in-house or plugged in from a third-party vendor. Many times we get caught up by the promise of an application without understanding data requirements and interoperability needs. With that said, some agencies cannot afford to start off with this approach and that’s OK because there are a number of ways to start. Yet having a long-term technology plan and vision is still paramount to success. This will support short-term decisions that can grow and scale. There is now online mapping and GIS applications that support some elements of the emergency management mission. Esri’s is one example. This provides access to worldwide data and services that can be used for general needs.

If the emergency management organization has access to a desktop GIS, they can create, edit, analyze and publish very specific data to their free online account to provide a greater level of detail and relevance to their online map display. Desktop GIS is very powerful. In my opinion, it is an essential tool for assessing and analyzing hazards and community values at risk. This analysis helps with mitigation requirements. Desktop GIS gives an organization a geospatial capability at a very low cost (low risk) and can be a step toward greater geospatial capability overtime. Again, a GIS plan should be developed as opposed to becoming focused on a closed application.

One of the keys is having short-term success that typically drives support for more capability. There are also a number of options today that were not available just a few years ago. A geospatial platform can be deployed in the cloud, taking away some of the hardware and IT capitalization and maintenance costs. A geospatial platform in the cloud can also be configured and deployed to serve organizations in a regional context. This allows cost sharing.

Social media appears to be playing a larger role in disasters. What is the evolution that you have seen with social media and emergency management? What opportunities are there for integrating computer mapping with social media?

Social media is a relatively new phenomenon that has begun to provide interesting opportunities and challenges to the public safety domain. We have seen examples, such as Haiti, where the only form of information coming out of an impacted area initially was social media. Was it authoritative? Was it always reliable? Was it always accurate? The answer to these questions is no. Was this information better than nothing? My answer is absolutely. I think these same questions and challenges apply to many aspects of emergency management and public safety.

From a geospatial perspective, when social media can be mapped, it helps resolve some of the challenges. For instance, a number of similar text messages received from the same geographic area can help validate information. As we begin to figure out how to use GIS tools (hot spot mapping, proximity to services or supplies, routing and other tools), the ability to make social media more valuable and relevant becomes more apparent. We at Esri are developing free downloadable templates that will enable our users to integrate geographic-based social media into their Web-based mapping applications.

Eric Holdeman Contributing Writer

Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.

He can be reached by emailTwitter and Google+.

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