Disaster response evolves: faster, more detailed, and community focused

The recent earthquake in Haiti makes us, placed as we are on another of the great faults of the western hemisphere, take pause and think about the fragility of life and the suddenness of disasters like earthquakes.  The mapping of earthquakes - their shake strength, fault lines, and past seismicity - and their damage, has changed in recent years. The Haiti quake shows this: within hours and days of the quake, we were able to see the shake intensity, historical seismicity and detailed faults from the USGS, and Open Street Map opened up a crisis center for participatory mapping. International agencies requested satellite data of the area and, NASA, GeoEye and the European Space Agency responded, and shared their imagery freely.  A number of detailed before and after visualizations from outlets like the NY Times and Bing Maps quickly followed. The disaster and the geospatial response was chronicled in many blogs. 

This is more than what was available to us recently with the San Diego, California fires or the San Francisco Oil Spill in 2007, or Hurricane Katrina in 2005, or the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004, each of which set new records for mapping speed and creativity. Each global-scale disaster seems to be a driving innovative force to help shape and evolve participatory mapping, detailed imagery delivery, and spatial decision support tools.  For example, this past weekend I was involved in a World Bank effort called Operation GEO-CAN – Global Earth Observation – Catastrophe Assessment Network (press release here) to analyze aerial imagery from imagery from Port au Prince in 2009 (top) and 2010 (bottom)before and after the Haiti earthquake.  The World Bank needed fast action to get a clearer picture of damage and rebuilding needs. Hundreds of people, from 20 countries, recruited via email, were quick to lend their expertise to digitize and describe collapsed buildings evident in new GeoEye imagery when compared to older imagery (see example at left).  The Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI), who helped coordinate the effort, used a fast, mobile, distributed thinking system that employed a Google Earth framework and a clever workload management system that allowed users to check out individual tiles of imagery, search for collapsed buildings, digitize them, and then upload the data as lean and mean kmz files. The effort was viral, and continued to grow over the weekend as many of us analyzed tile after tile of imagery, and saw the unimaginable destruction in Haiti. It is astonishing what you are able to see with detailed, multi-temporal, nadir view imagery: collapsed buildings and walls; tents erected in back yards; blocked roads.  The dataset we created will be used to guide emergency response and restoration.

This kind of distributed analysis was inconceivable not long ago. The GeoEye satellite, which captures sub-meter imagery routinely, and Google Earth, which seamlessly coordinates multiple imagery streams, are now mainstream in the 21st century, as are other tools like Open Street Map and Bing. New imagery of disaster foci, new software to fuse and analyze multi-temporal imagery, new database management tools to guide workflow are critical, but it is visionary thinking that is able to quickly capture a concerned and technically capable audience that is paramount. We can learn from our response to the horror of natural disasters like earthquakes to support research in environmental sciences.  These experiences reinforce the message that geospatial tools, as tools alone, are inconsequential. But when we can quickly and accurately map pattern and context, and use that to support decisions, plan for the future, and communicate options, geospatial tools can be the among most powerful available to us.  Along these lines, we at the GIF have been turning our attention internationally, and are focusing on several international projects. For example, we are working with colleagues from the Department of Economics to map land cover change in order to study patterns of human conflict in Sierra Leone, and helping train professional health care students from UCSF who will be stationed in African and India in coming years to look for connections between human health and environment.  We will write about some of these in our upcoming newsletter.

As a last word, there is plenty more to do in Haiti: places to donate include the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and Partners in Health, among many, many more.