When Disaster Strikes, GIS and Social Media Are There to Help

When Hurricane Irene battered the East Coast and people needed information, an important source came from a combination of geographic information systems and social media. GIS software vendor Esri pulled together a Web-based information system using data from various sources including the National Hurricane Center. Esri then integrated that with information from Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr. It was a system anyone with a GIS degree would love.

Viewers could see the path of the hurricane and match locations with on-the-spot reports. This wasn’t the first time that GIS systems and social media worked together to improve crisis communications. During a massive flood in Australia during January 2011, Esri’s subsidiary in that country created a response map that showed both emergency response teams and the public vital information like road closures and evacuation centers.

Social media links helped the public know about its existence, so they could plan their actions more effectively. The social media and GIS connection began to show its potential  after the 2007 Kenyan presidential elections. A site called Ushahidi provided a way to map political violence and disasters. The power of this new form of presenting information became even clearer during the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Emergency responders began to understand how much vital information that social media can carry:

OpenStreetMap (OSM) project volunteers working outside Haiti created a digital street map of Port-au-Prince and other places in Haiti very rapidly using fine-resolution imagery to trace vector maps of streets and other features. The Ushahidi Project was able to post appeals for help, translated from Creole into English by another group of online volunteers. Together, these VGI projects were instrumental in guiding first responders to disaster victims.

Such social networks as Twitter and Facebook offer crowd-sourced information that is often tied to particular locations. Text, sound, photos, and video enrich what is available. When added to mapping data, the combination can provide crucial understanding of the situation on the ground in real-time, rather than waiting for an officially-produced report. During the 2011 uprising in Egypt, Esri took the whole range of information and mapped it, helping communicate a sense of what was actually happening, even as the government tried to suppress reports. The flourishing of social media has begun to have a deep impact on how GIS experts develop systems. Put the large volumes of communications into a mapped context and you can begin to understand the data in new ways. In fact, there’s a new term for the concept: volunteered geographic information, or VGI.

Not only is it an exciting time for those in GIS, but a rewarding one, as well.

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