“GIS Lays a Critical Foundation to Planning for Emergencies”

“GIS Lays a Critical Foundation to Planning for Emergencies”

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Russ Johnson, Director, Public Safety Solutions, Esri
Russ Johnson
Director, Public Safety Solutions, Esri

Esri has been reaching out to countries struggling with natural calamities. In an interview with GeoIntelligence, Russ Johnson, Director, Public Safety Solutions, Esri, explains how GIS has become an indispensable part of public safety.

Can you tell us about your association with the US government, and then this switch to Esri?

I worked for the US federal government looking after different types of emergency management in the United States. As disasters became more frequent and bigger, the federal government put together 15 incident management teams to be sent to very complex emergencies both within the US and outside. While managing one of those teams, I travelled to different places to help with disasters. It was during that time that I learnt how important GIS is to not only give us an understanding about the area before a disaster but also to help us figure out the location of the most important places to find resources to save lives, property and natural resources. GIS also helps us model things that might happen in the next few days, areas where the efforts need to be prioritised based upon the greatest threat — all these things really brought me into the GIS world. I understand how effective the technology could be in aiding decision making. So one thing led to another, and I was invited to join Esri to help formulate its plan to support both — the software side and the services side/engagement side.

When you say engagement, what does it mean?

When a disaster occurs, we reach out to the affected local authorities. So we provide software and send it across to them. Not only do we give them software that we think is configured to support their workflow but we also reach out to people for help. We have, right now, a big recovery effort in Colorado because of the floods; so we have people on site helping to do damage assessment, LiDar for reconstruction and a variety of things that help manage, maintain and recover

Do you replicate this kind of model all over the world?

We do it anywhere in the world. If it occurs in a foreign country, we initially contact our distributor, our office there and we tell them, “we are here to support;” and “we are here to engage ourselves and work with them.” Microsoft has the same disaster programme as ours but not the same capabilities as we do, so we partner with Microsoft and we go together, many times.

Every disaster is different but the workflow and needs are similar. So we have a programme where we know what kind of people we will need, we get them ready, we contact the local people and understand their needs and then start working on supporting them the way they need it.


Homeland security programmes help in identifying obvious hazards and evaluate less obvious hazards such as critical resources and infrastructure. The hazard data can be viewed with other map data to develop a risk assessment

How can GIS help in public safety in general and how does Esri help?

from a high-level emergency management perspective, the only time that you are going to be really effective in managing disasters is when you understand where your vulnerabilities are, managing the risk, understanding the natural hazards, they could be anything from flood to earthquakes to areas that have wildfires, landslides, weather events, etc. Understanding what has happened in the past, looking at today (where is our critical infrastructure and where is our population) — and the past usually forecasts the future — we can look at when the next event may occur and how is that going to effect us, and what are we going to do ‘now’, that is, preparation to do before a disaster occurs. Preparedness is about people’s behaviour for evacuation and how we route people to do things. Do we need to build a wall or do we need to relocate certain facilities? This is where GIS is most effective, that is, when a disaster occurs, you already have a plan in place to deal with it.

from the moment a phone call is received about a problem, GIS comes into play – it helps in figuring out where the problem is, which department, the police, ambulance or fire department is required to address the problem, and what is the best route available to reach the problem area. There is a possibility that the best route available may not be the shortest at the time of the day. For example, if I am a fireman responding to a disaster, I can have a mobile computer in my vehicle and I may have the parcel data that shows up because the call was sent to my computer. I may have the floor plan to know where the hazardous materials are, where the electrical and gas shutoffs are, and where people will normally be from where we need to rescue them. 2So on the response side, from the moment an event occurs, GIS plays a role and that’s really critical to be able to make decisions. If one can provide this critical information to the rescuers beforehand, that can save a lot of minutes and sometimes minutes save lives. For instance, in case of a shooting attack in a school, if I have a floor plan and if I know the location of exit points, phones or windows, and where people can assemble – if I have this information before I can get there – then we can safely engage and know where we are heading. So, GIS lays a critical foundation to planning for emergencies, for responding to emergencies and recovering from emergencies.

Thirty years back, everything was done with a hard copy of map. Today, we have intelligent maps that give you a real picture of what is occurring at a moment, to which you can ask questions and you can model to say ‘what if’ — that is critical for decisions, that makes the difference in saving lives and properties. So it is an essential technology for public safety.

What are the kind of solutions that Esri provides?

The dynamics have changed but one of the things that everyone wanted was the capability to have a ‘common operating picture’ to provide us with situational awareness. When I look at a map, I am not just looking at a snapshot of history, I am seeing a static map with base layers, critical infrastructure, and now I can see live information, my units, my traffic cameras, etc. So it is a virtual picture into the reality of what is occurring at the moment, it gives me a capability for making a decision and being able to share that decision with other people, so that I can coordinate my decision. This ability to have a dynamic realtime picture is one of the biggest capabilities that people wanted. Over time, we have become so good in being able to bring in a lot of information and data that we have to be careful so that we don’t give too much information today. Simply put, GIS is now a platform with analytic capabilities and data and it can do marvelous things. This one platform is giving us multiple applications to support just what you do. It is amazing how we can have all these filtered applications that support one goal. And if I am the commander, I just want to be overwhelmed with how great we are doing. The technology provides us with a capability to be so much more effective. We are at a point where government agencies are slower than technology but now they are discovering that they can have these capabilities. So our challenge is to go out and demonstrate these capabilities and help customers prepare in advance because we don’t want to do that when an emergency occurs.

In terms of public safety domain, which countries and regions are of great interest to Esri?

We have two programmes. One is public safety and we talk about that with countries which have great infrastructure and great capabilities and good economies. For countries that are not economically strong but have crisis (we think more in humanitarian crisis and humanitarian affairs), we work closely with the United Nations so that they have some capabilities to do much better than they have in the past.

While places in Europe, China, Australia are very much like the United States and are growing in a much similar way, in other parts of the world, they are just beginning to understand that they have access to the Internet. But sometimes giving them access to the Internet is also difficult. We work with the governments, that is, we tell them that if you want to notify people here is your datasets, we know where the hazards are, and we help them understand how to have an early warning if an event occurs, be it weather related or earthquakes, and where they can begin to move their population. So we are making headway with either public safety or humanitarian crisis, but there is a difference. You need to know what their capabilities are before you put a plan together. In time, we will see those economically depressed countries become better and better at managing refugees, dealing with humanitarian crisis, etc. We work very closely with the United Nations, it is a good ally in helping us understand where the needs are and what kind of capacities those regions in the world have.


With GIS tools, it is easier to identify objects which are at high risk of potential attack

In many natural disasters, there is ea complete loss of data. For instance, in India, in case of landslides, people need to be rescued from great heights and there is no data. How can any technology work in such a case?

One of the things that we rely on is our imagery partners. DigitalGlobe has a project called ‘Firstlook.’ As soon as there is a disaster anywhere in the world, it obtains latest pictures of the place. We already have worldwide imagery, we take the new imagery and carry out change detection so that we can understand what the impact is within the first 24hours. We are finding that people, everywhere in the world use social media. So with the combination of new imagery and the ability to map social media, we get a pretty good picture, anywhere in the world, of what is going on in the first 24 hours and we start publishing that to the affected countries. As we get more information and as we model what we have, we keep adding that information to the map. You eventually start getting more refined authoritative information, so it is a combination of that kind of processes that leads us to some kind of actionable information, and it is better than what they had five years ago.

Imagery is really critical to those kinds of events that you described. But the social media is also really powerful global tool. It may not just be a disaster, it could also be social unrest where social media could play a really important role. We have tools that not only filter certain words but can also tell the mood of people — “Is this an angry mood? Is this a moderate tone?” and then we can begin to map out where there is an angry tone or where there is a moderate tone. So it is not only about the information but also about what is happening around the world. We can also read tweets from a person and with the tools that we are developing, gain an understanding of the person’s representation with a larger community based on his connections. Putting a geographic background to all that gives the whole picture.

So we have tools, technology and the expertise and we need to protect everything we have. We think of industries, there is health, natural resources, transportation — public safety runs this way and it touches all of these, you have to preserve everything. We think of ourselves as cutting across all of those and being a fundamental capability, a basic priority for all of the other industries if they are going to be sustainable.