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Value of geoinformation for disaster and risk management

“Building a culture of prevention is not easy. While the costs of prevention have to be paid in the present, their benefits lie in a distant future.” — Kofi Annan, former Secretary General, United Nations

Disasters cause massive disruption to societies and overburden economic systems. Thousands of people are killed, many thousands lose their livelihoods and tens of thousands more displaced from their homes every year by naturally triggered storms, floods, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. Vital resources are destroyed, infrastructure is damaged, and transport and communications are jeopardised. Since 1970, the damages caused by all the hazards worldwide accumulate to over $ 2,300 billion (@ 2008 value), equivalent to 0.23% of the cumulative world output. A gradual but clear upward trend can be observed, which is likely to continue into the future due to the impacts of climate change and population growth in areas exposed to natural hazards (World Bank/ United Nations, 2010).

These effects could be minimised and considerable losses to life and property could be avoided through improved risk assessment, early warning and disaster monitoring. Risk assessment provides information about the combined effects of hazard and vulnerability, allowing improved risk reduction and mitigation. The outcome of early warning is information on the onset of potential disasters, which can improve preparedness in the affected area. However, these technologies are still not fully exploited for disaster and risk management. The successful implementation of geospatial technologies requires a solid base of political support, laws and regulations, institutional responsibility, and trained staff.

While many studies highlight the economic benefits of disaster prevention and preparedness as compared to post-disaster response efforts, the actual demand for disaster-related geoinformation, especially earth observation satellite data, is mostly biased towards support of disaster response.

This issue is even aggravated by the fact that many information products specifically dedicated to prevention and mitigation support, such as risk assessment maps and early warning systems, are more complex and hence costly in comparison with, for instance, a local damage assessment map. This is due to the cost-driving factors like GIS-based modelling, extended spatial and temporal coverage, and system development, implementation and operation. A critical observer might sum up this situation by stating that in support of disaster and risk management, geoinformation is preferably applied where it is cheap and less efficient.

Therefore, knowledge transfer is needed from geoscience experts and international bodies to professionals and decision makers in the field of disaster and risk management. Many international organisations are tackling this issue, among them are the Joint Board of Geospatial Information Societies (JB GIS), and the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) which is carrying out the United Nations Platform for Space-based information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response (UN-SPIDER).

The VALID project

JB GIS and UNOOSA studied the impact and potential financial benefits under the framework of an interdisciplinary project named VALID (The Value of Geoinformation for Disaster and Risk Management). It is partially based on a global stakeholder survey which was facilitated by the UNSPIDER contact database, including the network of National Focal Points. Of the total 70 responders, 51 are end users and 19 are non-end users (research organisations, for example).

This article presents the summary of results of the study and the survey. It gives evidence of economic, operational and strategic benefits which can be realised by applying geoinformation in tackling the increasing challenges of natural and man-made disasters and risks.

A vast majority of end-users ascribed a high to medium benefit to all shortlisted geoinformation items (Table 1) for all operational and strategic issues addressed. The results also clearly show the emphasis given by the participating user community to the application of geoinformation, not just to support emergency response but also to map and monitor risks, with beneficial effects such as reducing public losses and supporting risk reduction strategies. The study results show clearly the indispensable value of user knowledge when it comes to valuating geoinformation for disaster and risk management.

(Figure 1): Benefit for health care


(Figure 2): Benefit for critical infrastructure


(Figure 3): Benefit for security


Operational benefits

Operational benefits take effect in the immediate context of emergency response, but also in support of disaster preparedness following an early warning or in the course of a slowonset disaster. Humanitarian aid, e.g. logistical assistance in deploying supply goods, or assisting refugees, is a paramount requirement in emergency response. Here, the benefit of all items was appraised as high by more than 50% of the endusers, with emphasis on earthquake damage assessment (over 90%). Even fire risk mapping as a more prevention-related item scored more than 50 %.

Health care, e.g. emergency medical assistance or disaster preparedness in hospitals, is a highly crucial and time-critical issue in humanitarian support. In the end-users’ appraisal, most items were evaluated as highly beneficial by more than 50%, except for landslide hazard assessment, fire risk mapping, flood risk monitoring and flood risk mapping. Emphasis was given to earthquake damage assessment (75%) and fire detection and monitoring (over 75%) (Figure 1). Apparently, emphasis is given to the needs of immediate medical aid in emergency situations, resulting in distinctly higher benefit scores of disaster detection and damage assessment versus risk and hazard mapping.

Critical infrastructure encompasses transportation, energy supply, communication links and food production. More than 70% of the end-users evaluated all items except drought vulnerability mapping as highly beneficial (Figure 2). Although drought vulnerability is a critical issue regarding food production, apparently the major concern was about technical infrastructure which is not directly affected by drought. Scores of over 90% were reached for quake damage assessment mapping, urban classification for earthquake risk analysis and flood risk mapping.

Security means, for examples, control over vulnerable structures in emergency situations as well as preparedness of the population and resilience of infrastructure in the pre-disaster phase was an important aspect. In the end-users’ appraisal, all items but drought vulnerability mapping scored over 50% for highly beneficial, with scores over 60% going for earthquake damage assessment mapping and urban classification for earthquake risk analysis (Figure 3).


Strategic benefits

Strategic benefits are expected mostly on the level of pre-disaster planning for risk reduction, and also in the aftermath of a disaster when it comes to coping with economical losses and reconstruction.

Efficiency of plans and policies in disaster and risk management may benefit from integrating the geospatial dimension into the information base for strategic decision support, which is complementary to merely statistical data. Except for fire risk mapping, all geoinformation items were evaluated by over 50% of the end-users group as highly beneficial, with the highest scores for urban earthquake risk analysis (75%) and flood risk mapping (>70%) (Figure 4).

Public acceptance of plans and policies may be increased especially by the visual representation of damage, vulnerabilities and risks, as provided by suitable geoinformation products. Under this aspect, however, the overall evaluation as highly beneficial was lower by end-users, with just flood damage assessment mapping scoring well above 50%. In general, the responders assessed the benefits of geoinformation as moderate when aiming to increase public acceptance of plans and policies.

Support of super-regional consistency and cooperation, for instance by sharing uniform geospatial reference information, is a critical strategic issue in all cases where a spatially extended trans-boundary hazard has to be coped with, where a global strategy shall be implemented, or where disaster and risk management is carried out in a federal administrative system. Here, more than 50% highly beneficial appraisals from end-users were given to fire detection and monitoring, earthquake damage assessment mapping (over 55%), urban earthquake risk analysis (55%), and flood damage assessment mapping.

For reducing losses in the public economy, e.g. by risk reduction or more efficient emergency response, over 60% of the end-users group evaluated most items as highly beneficial, with only minor differences, and with drought vulnerability mapping and flood risk monitoring (both more than 55 %) coming just short of this score.

Support of preventive strategies has been proven as a highly efficient approach to disaster management and may benefit from geoinformation e.g. in the way of identifying, assessing and locating disaster risks. Accordingly, more than 60% of end-users evaluated all items as highly beneficial except flood damage assessment (55%) (Figure 5).

(Figure 4): Benefit for efficiency of plans and policies


(Figure 5): Benefit for support of preventive strategies


Cost aspect

It would be tempting to juxtapose benefit appraisal results and cost estimates for the 10 reference geoinformation items, thus mimicking a classical cost-benefit-analysis, as has been demonstrated for a set of well-defined satellite data products (Backhaus and Beule 2005). In the case of the VALID reference items, this approach would have meant facing three major challenges:

• The different cost categories that are relevant for products or systems, e.g. regarding the amount of ‘input’ that is readily available at minimal cost in terms of suitable data and mature soft- and hardware;

• Variations in costs charged by different providers; and

• Variation in costs due to where and when and under which programmatic conditions a given system is developed, implemented and operated.


Furthermore, the 10 reference products relate to very different disaster types and different phases of disaster management. The cost-benefits-relation of products related more specifically to the emergency preparedness and response phases can be more easily modelled, because there is plenty of empirical data on the actual losses caused by various disaster types in different parts of the world.

Other products such as damage assessment maps contribute to recovery and reconstruction because they help to estimate the damages and needs or to monitor the financial performance of recovery activities, in both ways optimising the efficiency of recovery spending.


Geospatial information on risk and vulnerability will support effective policies of mitigation and risk reduction. Whereas these preventive approaches as such are generally acknowledged as the option of choice to obtain higher efficiency in disaster and risk management, the specific impact of geoinformation is more difficult to quantify. At present, any research on this point has to involve the explicit and tacit knowledge of stakeholders, practitioners and experts.