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Successful Response Starts with a Map: Improving Geospatial Support for Disaster Management
no amount of technological sophistication will be sufficient to address the kinds of breakdowns that occurred in the supply and use of geospatial data and tools in recent disasters. The effectiveness of any technology is as much about the human systems in which it is embedded as about the technology itself. The committee concluded that issues of training, coordination among agencies, sharing of data and tools, planning and preparedness, and the attention and resources invested in technology turn out to be the critical factors and the ones that have to be addressed if future responses are to be more effective.
The goal of this study was to evaluate the current use of geospatial data and tools in emergency management and to make recommendations to improve that use. The study tasks assigned to the committee addressed both planning and response; the status of tools for predicting and mapping vulnerability; the types of data required for emergency management; the techniques available for discovering and accessing data from diverse sources; training requirements; and issues of data security. The committee approached the task by holding a series of meetings at which it heard evidence from individuals and representatives of organizations; organizing a workshop that included extensive formal and informal discussion; and drawing on the considerable experience of its members.
The committee’s central conclusion is that geospatial data and tools should be an essential part of all aspects of emergency management— from planning for future events, through response and recovery, to the mitigation of future events. Yet they are rarely recognized as such, because society consistently fails to invest sufficiently in preparing for future events, however inevitable they may be. Moreover, the overwhelming concern in the immediate aftermath of an event is for food, shelter, and the saving of lives. It is widely acknowledged that maps are essential in the earliest stages of search and rescue, that evacuation planning is important, and that overhead images provide the best early source of information on damage; yet the necessary investments in resources, training, and coordination are rarely given sufficient priority either by the general public or by society’s leaders.
In all aspects of emergency management, geospatial data and tools have the potential to contribute to the saving of lives, the limitation of damage, and the reduction in the costs to society of dealing with emergencies. Responders who know where impacts are greatest, where critical assets are stored, or where infrastructure is likely to be damaged are able to act more quickly, especially during the “golden hour” immediately after the event when there is the greatest possibility of saving lives. Geospatial data that are collected and distributed rapidly in the form of useful products allow response to proceed without the confusion that often occurs in the absence of critically important information. Indeed, it is