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GeoWeb and Emergency Response

Responding to emergency events, whether caused by nature, humans, or some combination, is a primary responsibility of government.  In the past several years, a number of major emergencies have high-lighted the need for better response strategies and for more rapid and effective sharing of information.

Emergency events do not respect any particular geographic distribution, and any useful response must integrate the actions of numerous agencies across all levels of government and society.  This last fact is so much the case that considering systems ONLY for this purpose seems to be counter to the very need that such systems are built to address.  It would seem much more reasonable to think of information sharing and collaboration as fundamental to government and THEN look at how to secure this capability within the domain of emergency response.  Any other approach is likely to create yet more stove pipes which cannot easily draw on existing sources of information, nor readily distribute it to the myriad agencies that must respond to the event.

While everyone may agree on the importance of information sharing in an emergency, the real support in deployed emergency response systems is much more anemic than one might expect.  People seem more enamored with large screen TV's and hardware infrastructures than with the subtleties of information management.  This is an attitude that will need to change if information technology is seriously to impact the outcomes of emergency events.

There is general agreement that open standards must play some sort of role in emergency response systems, however there is a huge gap in understanding as to what this actually means.  The scope, applicability, and utility of potential standards (OGC, ISO, OASIS, W3C, IETF, etc.) are often poorly understood by procurement authorities, leading to considerable abuse and misrepresentation or, even worse, to a simple "check the box" adherence.  Much more is needed in the way of education before open standards are to be taken seriously in emergency response systems.  This is true regardless of the oft reported procurement language in support of open standards.

Let me return to the earlier theme of the GeoWeb and Emergency Response. As noted above, we should work toward information sharing as a fundamental aspect of e-governance, rather than something special for Emergency Response. Emergency Response should be no more than a critical use case.

What is it that information technology can do to assist in our response to Emergency events?  There are many possibilities, including: evacuation planning and control, impact assessment, consequence prediction, coordination of public health and related resources, infrastructure control (e.g. dams, tunnels, reactors, etc.), and coordination of public safety (e.g. police, fire, hazmat, etc.) responses.  Most of these activities are going to require:

  1. Access to the most current information respecting nominally static structures and other physical infrastructure (e.g. roadways, buildings, etc.).
  2. Access to the most current information respecting nominally static things like property ownership/leases (e.g. contact information), other related assets, and jurisdictional boundaries for various agencies.
  3. Access in real time or near real time to the state of dynamic information such as road traffic, aircraft flights, ship movements, and the movements of key personnel.
  4. Access in real time or near real time to sensor data that relates to the event. This could be highly variable, and include normal weather information (e.g. wind speed, direction), seismic data, and possibly measures of biological or radiological contaminants.
  5. Access in real time or near real time to simulated features and parameters resulting from modeling of the emergency event or the response (e.g. evacuation plan). Simulation modeling could play a major role in emergency response IF it can be supplied by current, accurate information AND IF the results of modeling can be distributed and used by the responding organizations.

These requirements than have several key implications for any Emergency Response System:

  • The system must support the movement of real data, not just maps or presentations.
  • The data volume to be moved about must be minimized, hence focused on changes and on only the data that a given consuming organization needs to have (subject to access control restrictions).
  • The system must readily enable automated information flows as there is often no time for simplistic client-server interactions or request formulation. This must further include things like schema-based data translation, as it is a given that there will be different data models across the spectrum of participating agencies.
  • The system must provide intrinsic support for automated data validation and quality assurance.
  • A "one size fits all" presentation, while useful for context, cannot hope to support the varied needs of the participants. Styling of data for agency-specific consumption and utilization is thus essential.

For most emergency response systems, the ability to meet these criteria is still well in the future.  With the right orientation, however, and with some forward thinking, the timetable for really useful deployment of information technology in support of emergency response can be moved up substantially.  Moreover, if governments can see the provision of information infrastructures (the GeoWeb) as an inherent aspect of e-governance, and not just a special thing for emergencies, we can move forward all that much faster.

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