How geoinformation services can help in disasters | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 21.10.2013
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How geoinformation services can help in disasters

When earthquakes, floods and other disasters hit, GIS can help rescue teams do their work. But aid organizations do not fully share the enthusiasm of the companies developing the systems.

When disaster strikes, the situation is often unclear: What is the extent of the devastation? Were people hurt? Where are they located? Many decisions must be made simultaneously, and every second counts.

Geographic information systems (GIS) assist rescuers in their work. They use a map or an aerial photograph, or a combination of both, as a basis to which additional information is added.

The easiest way to get an overview of the situation is a before-and-after view. It makes damage visible, such as that caused by the tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, in May. The map data includes damage to buildings, roads and bridges, critical infrastructure such as hospitals and shelters, and population structure.

The Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) is one of the firms behind this technology. It is headquartered in the US with offices in Germany and elsewhere. Mareike Kortmann of ESRI Germany described the possibilities of the technology in terms of the floods that hit Germany in the early summer: "Not only can the emergency services be shown which areas are flooded and how deep, but also how the age structure in specific areas, how many people have restricted mobility and require special assistance in an evacuation." It is also possible to check whether a particular area or a house must be vacated because it contains oil tanks or other hazardous materials.

Aerial picture of a Dresden suburb (Zentrum für Satellitengestützte Kriseninformation)

An ESRI picture of flood-stricken Dresden: The blue line is the normal course of the Elbe

Maps with YouTube videos and Flickr photos

The German Office for Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance also worked with such images during the recent floods. They made it possible to see, for example, which roads were flooded, allowing rescuers to plan evacuation routes.

The authorities generally also make such information avaiable to the public. An example of this is a map of the US state of Colorado, showing the devastation of the floods in September. The public helps to fill in the map: Facebook and Twitter posts can be incorporated, along with YouTube videos and Flickr images.

There are also systems designed especially for emergency personnel. In Germany, for example, there is "Blue," which was developed by the Satellite Navigation Berchtesgadener Land initiative in southern Bavaria. It allows aid workers to see both where emergency vehicles are, and where injured people and devastation can be found. Some of this is automatically detected via satellite positioning, while the rest is entered by emergency personnel. The data can be retrieved using tablet computers.

There are still real-world problems with GIS

Members of the Federal Agency of Technical Relief (THW) load sandbags in Hirschfeld near Leipzig June 2, 2013. (REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch)

Germany suffered torrential rains and severe floods in June

In practice, however, there are significant problems with GIS. To start with, the range of available technologies is confusing and they are not always compatible with each other. In addition, emergency personnel need to be trained, which can be expensive.

Another stumbling block is availability. To have data on the current situation available, an internet connection is required. But that is not always the case during a disaster. Magnus Memmeler of the Johanniter humanitarian association in North Rhine-Westphalia speaks from experience. For about six years, GIS has been provided by the authorities and used by aid organizations. "On-site, we can look at the topography and the location of usable infrastructure," he said. "As long as the mobile phone network works, it's all very nice."

But during this year's floods, which caused major damage in the south and east of Germany, the network was overloaded, spokeswoman Natalie Brincks said. "We had to rely on residents because we weren't from the area."

Mareike Kortmann of the Environmental Systems Research Institute

Mareike Kortmann: GIS provides highly specific information

The Agency for Technical Relief (THW) also uses geoinformation services, especially abroad. But they don't yet play a decisive role in operations in Germany, THW President Albrecht Broemme said. "It is clear that the use of geoinformation systems is essential, but it can still be improved." Broemme said he therefore does not recommend entirely relying on technology. Paper topographic maps will continue to be indispensable in the future, he said, " because that always works."

The GIS companies are familiar with this problem. One approach is online-offline synchronization. If the connection is interrupted, the operations leader can see and edit the map. "Once the Internet connection is restored, his edits and the current situation are automatically merged," Kortmann said.

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