How GIS is Used in Emergency Management

Source:   , Police woman using GIS technology

Source:, Police woman using GIS technology

You are standing at the base of a devastating mudslide--one that has destroyed many homes in your community, and, potentially, taken several lives. As an emergency management professional, your job is to not only mitigate the current disaster, but to help ensure your community’s future safety. To do so, you’ll need lots of data, and lots of planning--two things Geospatial Information Systems can give you. 

Geospatial Information Systems (GIS) is an advanced computer system that captures, stores, checks and displays data related to positions on the Earth’s surface. For first responders, it can help better pinpoint and understand relationships on a map, helping identify evacuation routes or create mitigation strategies, for example. GIS helps determine and locate potential hazards and save lives--from preparedness and tracking, to response and recovery.

As GIS has matured, it has become a go-to tool for making location-based decisions. But how exactly is it being used--and what does that mean for the future of emergency management?

Cost Mitigation

In 2017, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported there were 16 natural disasters that led to a loss of more than $1 billion--per incident. GIS’s tracking and reporting capabilities were essential in getting cities across the country back on their feet. Communities used GIS data to advocate for their post-disaster financial needs by demonstrating the incident’s overall impact. 

Take Hurricane Irma, which devastated Key West, Florida. GIS’s data-rich reports ensured the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) distributed the dollars communities needed to implement renovations. FEMA was also able to offer a discount on insurance premiums to those who provided proof of impact--information only attainable through GIS technology 

As of July 9, 2019, there have been 6 weather and climate disaster events with losses exceeding $1 billion each across the United States. The need for GIS isn’t going away--and it continues to make a difference in recovering communities across the nation.

Hazard Mapping and Rescue 

In states where hurricanes are a real threat, such as Florida, Louisiana, Texas and the Carolinas, GIS data is being used for hazard mapping, and for developing rescue strategies. Hazard mapping, which highlights areas affected by a particular hazard--like hurricanes--helps prevent serious damage and deaths. GIS technology continuously collects data to create a live map of the buildings, streets and even vegetation, all with the goal of recording and reporting damage faster and more efficiently. 

Even before Hurricane Irma, Key West city officials were equipped with pre-downloaded, map-based data that helped them prepare response strategies and damage control plans. Mobile GIS software helped first responders to create a debris assessment that would locate and evaluate areas with the highest vulnerability. This kind of up to date information ensured that FEMA was sent to locations that needed the most support.

Key West continues to use GIS systems to develop live maps of all buildings, streets and even vegetation, in order to record and report damage even faster in future disasters situations. Plans for the future include creating a streamlined crowdsourcing feature where residents can report damage as it happens. 

Limiting Impact of Wildfires

The extremely unpredictable nature of wildfires has led to a reliance on GIS software and its ability to monitor, forecast and minimize their impact. Firefighters are given the ability to see real-time conditions using UAV’s and drones, along with data like wind speed and direction--all-the-while creating real-time maps that alert area residents of the current conditions and escape routes. Even after disaster has struck, GIS software can track the cleanup process and update travel routes. 

One new service offering that has been developed is the “Wildfire Risk Model.” Using multiple layers of GIS and Geospatial data, wildfire risk can be calculated and assessed with great detail. The model helps to create mitigation plans using a variety of risk variables, such as weather conditions, land slope, land topography, wind patterns, fire history and amount of fuel available. 

For California, GIS data has become invaluable. The state has become the driving force behind multiple data platforms such as the GIS Fire Situation Awareness Portal, the Santa Ana Fire Threat Index and the GIS Evacuation Portal. On a national level, this data has also supported a myriad of information services organizations such as the Geospatial Multi-Agency Coordination, the NASA Earth Science Disaster Program and the National Interagency Fire Center. 

As emergency management continues using GIS as a key disaster mitigation tool, the field will continue honing its accuracy. This is one of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency’s main goals: giving analysts the ability to “quickly process voluminous data...and determine their significance.” This will give emergency responders a deeper knowledge of the safety issues communities face--and strategize how to more proactively address them. And, ultimately saving citizens’ lives-- from hurricanes, wildfires and mudslides alike. 

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10 US Smart Cities to Watch

Source:   , New York City Smart Kiosk on the street

Source:, New York City Smart Kiosk on the street

Smart Cities are not only the future--they are today’s reality. Also commonly called digital cities or intelligent cities, these modern urban areas have systems that collect citizen’s data, which helps more efficiently manage available city resources. This means increased communication between government and citizens, and enhanced resource use at a reduced cost.

Cisco estimates improved efficiency of 30% within the next 20 years for these “smart” urban areas. Smart city initiatives are also seen as a fruitful long-term investment, with the annual Smarter cities IT market opportunity expected to be $34 billion. 

Here are 10 US cities that are leading the way to a “smarter” future:

Chicago, Illinois

Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel has made it the city’s mission to become the most data-driven government in the world. To do so, he’s taken on one of the most ambitious smart city projects in the US: the Array of Things project. In partnership with the University of Chicago and the Argonne National Laboratory, Chicago plans to collect and interpret data to make large-scale infrastructural changes. This includes overhauling city-wide lighting systems to improve energy efficiency and remotely dim lights in times of disuse; leveraging sensors to help detect early signs of river flooding; and accelerating the speed and availability of broadband internet.

Boston, Massachusetts

Boston is at the forefront of using data to manage city resources and public works--from being named the most energy-efficient city in the US, to being one of the first cities to launch an office dedicated to innovation. The city’s recent campaign Go Boston 2030 helps improve public transportation by installing digital kiosks that provide instantaneous information about public transit options. Boston has also started hosting civic gatherings known as “Beta Blocks” which includes an event called the “Robot Block Party” where participants discuss artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles and robotics. 

New York City

One of the city’s main projects is LinkNYC, an initiative to place smart kiosks throughout the city. Each kiosk provides free high-speed WiFi, phone calls, a tablet for maps and city services, device charging and a 9-1-1 emergency call button. It is predicted that over 7,500 Link kiosks will be installed across all 5 boroughs in the coming years. NYC is also home to the first privately owned public bicycle sharing system, Citi Bike, which just last year had 130,000 yearly subscribers. Aside from public services, New York is working on a smart-sensor-based project called Quantified Community that collects and analyzes data from a varied array of environmental and physical data points. 

San Francisco, California

Because more than half of all trips in San Francisco are taken with public transit, the city has focused their smart city initiatives on transportation as a whole. SF was a finalist in the 2016 Smart City Challenge and received $11 million which the city decided to divide among 6 transit-oriented initiatives, ranging from smart traffic signals to autonomous intra-island shuttle buses. One of SF’s recent investments is the SFpark project which utilizes wireless sensors to create a smarter parking management system. In the pilot stage of the project, 8,200 parking spots were equipped with the sensors. Based on this initial amount, SFpark reduced mileage and greenhouse gas emissions by 30%. 

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Pittsburgh is another city that has put a large focus on enhancing the mobility of its citizens. One of their major projects is the Surtrac project, a system of smart traffic lights that adapts to changing traffic patterns. The Surtrac system is already installed in 50 key intersections within the city, decreasing wait times at intersections by 40% and vehicle emissions by 21%. As a result, Pittsburgh was awarded around $11 million from DOT to expand Surtrac, to include an additional 150 intersections over the next few years. Additionally, Pittsburgh is working on rebuilding greener infrastructure within their steel industrial sights. This includes installing microgrids of solar and geothermal energy as well as LED streetlights and electric vehicle charging stations. 

Los Angeles, California

Los Angeles was named the #1 Digital City in the US in 2018, in large part due to the city’s Open Data platform, comprised of 1,100 data sets from all California departments. The city is also home to the Data Science Federation, a partnership between city departments and 18 local universities. One of the biggest challenges the Data Science Federation wants to address is utilizing predictive tools to improve the city’s housing problem. Already, data analytics is being used to identify at-risk individuals before they become homeless and provide additional resources. LA is also providing free WiFi in homeless areas. 

Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C.’s smart city initiatives are spearheaded by a subset of the Mayor’s office--the Lab@DC, a team of social scientists, data scientists, and operation experts. The Lab@DC produces body camera technology in the DC police department, litter reduction programs and flexible rent programs to combat homelessness. Another organization known as Smarter DC has been behind some more technical applications such as the Smart Waste Management Program. This adds sensor technology to waste cans that provide data on fill levels to improve efficiency. The Movement Analytics program uses video sensors to classify and count city movement with the goal of improving city operations and economic planning efforts. 

Columbus, Ohio

As the winner of the Smart City Challenge, the city of Columbus has a detailed innovation strategy that includes the establishment of the Smart Columbus Acceleration Fund. One of its main projects is a connected platform that improves resident and visitor mobility. This means the creation of a single app that allows residents to pay for all modes of transportation, improving access to all available transit options and elevating mobility. Another, more green-oriented project is the improvement of freight transportation in order to reduce traffic congestion and vehicle emissions. Columbus has developed a truck platooning system that allows for two or more semi-autonomous freight trucks to communicate in real time. This results in saved fuel, improved traffic flow and increased vehicle safety. 

Austin, Texas

In May 2016, Austin launched a strategic roadmap detailing the plans for its smart city projects. Their roadmap included one project that would launch an electric car-sharing program to serve underserved neighborhoods through public-private partnerships. It would also analyze the use of shared autonomous vehicles in the future. Austin is also known for utilizing a smart grid and digital meter initiative that serves to optimize billing and energy efficiency. Austin will also potentially be the first city in the US to trial the launch of a 5G network, through its free WiFi in public parks. 

Las Vegas, Nevada

As another Smart City Challenge finalist, Las Vegas made history with the introduction of the first autonomous electric shuttle on a public road. Thanks to a $350 million cash infusion from Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, Las Vegas has created an Innovation District that acts as a smart city test lab, as well as a testing ground for connected cars and self-driving vehicles. As in other cities, LV has also implemented connected sensor-based traffic lights that use machine-learning technology to optimize the flow of traffic. According to the organization Innovate Vegas, the city hopes to have a full system of high definition video cameras, sound and motion sensors and an array of IoT devices to create a multi-channel public safety solution. 

What smart city did we not include on our list? Leave us a note below.

Interested in learning more about innovation trends in the federal government? Visit us at and sign up for Innovation Dive, Corner Alliance’s monthly newsletter on the latest government innovation trends, news and perspectives.