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Disaster response: User generated data to the rescue

Ryan Falor
Product Manager, Google Crisis Response

With maps and geospatial data playing a critical role in crisis preparedness and response, here's a look at how Google Crisis Response team is working with response organisations to help find ways to make emergency information more accessible and actionable

Evidence suggests that during a crisis, people are increasingly turning to the Web, mobile phones and social media to find emergency-related information such as when to evacuate, where to find shelters, how to locate emergency care, or how to find news about loved ones. Emergency service personnel are also using cloudbased technologies and mobile device platforms to assess impact, coordinate response efforts across agencies and provide useful information to the public. Maps and geospatial data are often at the heart of these technology trends and play a critical role in crisis preparedness and response.

Evolution of Google Crisis Response
After the devastating Haiti earthquake in January 2010, the Google Crisis Response team was formed to work with response organisations and help find ways to make emergency information more accessible and actionable – both for affected individuals and response professionals. In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, the team worked with existing satellite imagery partners at GeoEye and DigitalGlobe to rapidly collect and publish satellite data. NGOs and response groups on the ground were able to use this imagery and related vector data to create offline maps, combine data sets and run analysis.

Because the Google Crisis Response team was able to release the data in open formats with freely available APIs and leverage its existing consumer tools, all organisations who wanted to consume this information could do so easily on their own. Trying to coordinate data sharing directly with each group on the ground in such a situation would have proved unsustainable and onerous for everyone involved.

Custom Maps in the aftermath of earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, provided the community with critical recovery information.

Government agencies, NGOs, commercial organisations and concerned citizens are all important players in the collection and provision of information during crises. Having tools available that are easy to use and readily available is an important component to fostering open data and coordination. In support of its partners’ efforts, the Google Crisis Response team worked with Google Map Maker, which provides for an easy way to update base-layer data and quickly make it available to others via the public Google Maps interface and API. For poorly mapped or remote locations where long-term response efforts are happening, NGOs and volunteers can use Google Map Maker to improve Google's map of the infrastructure and resources in order to improve coordination and planning for everyone.

Customised maps
Users can also create customised maps and share them on Google infrastructure using Google Custom Maps. People have used this tool to mark emergency medical stations, to note areas of disease outbreak or to identify infrastructure damage. During Israel's Haifa forest fire in 2010, local media used Custom Maps to provide the public with a rapidly evolving evacuation map that could be simultaneously updated and shared with hundreds of thousands of people.

In the 2010 earthquake that struck Christchurch, New Zealand, Custom Maps were also used by various community members and organisations to provide information about the locations of shelter, food, water and other critical community needs. Residents were able to use, share and enhance this map of critical resources in the aftermath of the event. The result was a mixture of crowdsourced and official data which allowed users to better understand the resources that were available and where volunteer efforts should be focused.

State of Vermont crisis map highlights the impact of severe flooding.

A more recent example is the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, which affected areas in the Caribbean and US East Coast, in the summer of 2011. Due to heavy rains that accompanied Irene, the state of Vermont experienced its worst flooding in decades, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars in estimated damages. Since so much of the state's infrastructure was affected by the flooding – including road closures, collapsed bridges and electrical outages – the need for timely access to a broad range of geospatial datasets was paramount. Working with the Vermont Agency of Transportation and other various agencies responding to the event, Google team was able to immediately publish a crisis map that combined many key geospatial datasets, including United States Geological Survey stream gages, Red Cross shelters, bridge closures and road access. Being able to mash up these crisis-related datasets into a single comprehensive map capable of taking the load of potentially millions of views a day meant that government and media websites were able to re-publish a comprehensive view of the event that was viewable by non-technical users across a range of browsers and devices.

Way forward
While relief organisations and governments have long understood the power of data visualisation in disaster preparedness and recovery, there is still a need to encourage the continued adoption of open data formats and better data licensing so that information is more accessible. The Google team believes that governments and organisations should encourage the use of Webfriendly open standards, especially KML, WMS and WFS, whenever possible so that people can quickly share and visualise data in disaster situations.

Google Crisis Response team’s disaster response work has highlighted the role of geospatial data in crisis preparedness and response over the past few years but its real potential is only beginning to be uncovered. The first and most critical step that we can take toward a better system is to work toward simple, standard and open internet-based technologies to better help emergency responders and populations affected by devastating natural disasters collaborate. This approach will allow an army of developers and volunteers to contribute, create and find solutions for the needs that are unique to each event.