When people ask me how GIS technology can assist in disaster response, one of the most powerful examples that comes to mind is the recovery efforts following the infamous Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.

For those who need a reminder, the spill began in late April after an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico. It was nothing short of catastrophic — the largest marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry and certainly one of the largest response efforts I have been involved with.

At the time, I worked with a team of Esri experts to provide software, technical support, GIS data and personnel to dozens of disaster response agencies.

Here are just four ways GIS technology helped inform their emergency response efforts.

1. GIS technology created a vital common view of the disaster as it unfolded.

First responders, government officials, environmental experts and commercial companies used GIS technology to create an accurate view of the crisis as it unfolded. In addition to showing key information such as the extent of the spill and locations of key infrastructure, maps included information such as an oil spill plume trajectory model, an environmental sensitivity index map and electronic navigation charts.

This common operating picture was used to monitor the spread of the oil spill across the Gulf of Mexico, identify potential impacts to natural resources, including wildlife, and guide decision-making.

As a result, responding agencies had greater situational awareness and could collaborate better to support command and control.

For example, participants in a Spill of National Significance (SONS) exercise used GIS to compile and consolidate information in a spatial context, providing incident commanders with a common operating picture of the situation on the ground.

Having an all-encompassing view of the situation also ensured it was easier to make decisions regarding placement of equipment and resources. Since the spill impacted a large geographic area, GIS analysis revealed the best place to locate boom assets used to mitigate the effects of oil on the shoreline.

2. GIS technology enabled us to effectively coordinate and integrate data and insights from dozens of organisations.

Every federal agency in the region that was responsible for dealing with natural resources was involved in this crisis clean up, as well as state agencies from four different states, each of which brought along their own contractors to help with the response. As a result, there were dozens of entities involved — all with varying degrees of spatial awareness, different datasets and operating on different platforms.

GIS technology was used to effectively collect and collate data (imagery and maps) from these state and federal agencies and shared it through a GIS platform, allowing the situation to be rapidly assessed visually by senior officials in the field.

GIS experts were able to use the system to provide different users with the information they needed to make decisions.

For example, the state leadership teams were presented with insights into issues such as oil boom and oil slick, or engineering projects and considerations in the area that may have impacted response such as breakwaters, Tiger Dams and sandbagging operations. All this was done daily, and maps were continuously being updated as information became available.

3. GIS made it possible to collect data on-the-fly and right from the heart of the crisis.

Mobile GIS technology enabled information to be collected in the field and shared amongst responders. For example, Alabama’s Department of Environmental Management used the ArcGIS platform to collect the locations and condition of deployed booms while out in the gulf. The application also allowed the marine police and resources officers to stream GPS coordinates to a laptop, attribute the line and edit the attributes. The data was sent to a server in near real-time to provide the data to the planners on-the-fly.

4. GIS helped us harvest and share community updates to deliver new insights.

Geography is a common language that transcends countries and cultures, so using maps was a particularly effective way of ensuring the broader community could stay up-to-date with response and recovery efforts.

Following the disaster, Esri launched a series of public information maps that not only provided responders with tools to anticipate any adverse effects and respond proactively, but also provided members of the public with a similar view of information.

People could add their own volunteered geographic information (VGI) to the maps, such as links to photos, websites, Tweets or YouTube videos. This meant volunteers could contribute to the growing source of knowledge around the crisis and increase everyone's awareness of activities related to the spill.

About the Author

Russ Johnson
Russ Johnson
Global Public Safety Expert
Esri, US
Global expert advising on public safety with experience in homeland security, fire, emergency medical services and disaster management.

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