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Jim Smalley
Spatial Intelligence: GIS

by Jim Smalley: Trends in mapping for emergency managers

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February 2010 Archives
February 01, 2010

Just in from FEMA -  
Due  to a conflict with the Technologies for Critical Incident Preparedness (TCIP) Conference next week, the demo of the GTAS has been rescheduled for Wednesday, February 10 th , 12:00 Noon Eastern.  Please mark your calendar and plan to join the demonstration.  The program will feature an introduction to the Geo-Targeted Alerting System (GTAS) by Greg Pratt and Richard Jesuroga from NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL). 
A  joint development effort between ESRL and FEMA's Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS), t he GTAS project is a prototype implementation of the latest developments in plume modeling, high resolution weather models, and network enabled operations.  For an overview, see: http://fxc.noaa.gov/GTAS/.
If you are planning to attend the TCIP conference in Philadelphia, visit the DM Program and IPAWS exhibits while you are there. And stop by the National Alliance for Public Safety GIS Foundation and say to me, too. 


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February 02, 2010

First, the "shoe bomber." And we all obediently removed our shoes as we traveled through airport security. 

Then, the "water bottle whatever-it-was" incident. And we all obediently surrendered our lattes and water before going through security.

Most recently, the "underwear bomber." And, as in the past,  we will all obediently, no, not take off our underwear, but undergo more scrutiny as airports install additional machines that will better scan, sniff, inspect, detect and reject foreign and dangerous objects from luggage and person. 

After each planned (and failed) attack on airlines, airline security gets tougher on travelers. Unfortunately, the reactive solution to the threat du jour, which has been characterized from patriotic to idiotic, is to get bigger and better machines. This is not an unusual reaction, by the way, by almost any organization under pressure, public or private. The decision favoring bigger and better technology is a traditional and was accepted as a proven solution in past experiences. Short of forming an Olympic Conclusion Jumping Team, the decision misses the point and the problem.

The weak point in our national, state, local security is not the machines or the people themselves, but our reliance on the machines more than on the people. Intelligence is a human attribute and our use of intelligence is what separates us from, say, our laptop computers. Our computers have data. But only we, as humans, can interpret the data into knowledge. From knowledge (and experience), we develop wisdom. 

A GIS is a valuable tool in tracking incidents and threats, as well as in planning intricate responses with valuable resources to meet the risks and hazards of the 21st century, but it is a manifestation of data, lots of data, some seemingly unrelated until viewed in relation to other data and information. From detailed maps, supported by the right data ("right" meaning relevant, accurate, and precise) only humans can analyze and recognize patterns, examine relational overlays of data points on a piece of paper or computer screen, and infer and assign a meaning to it all. And then take the appropriate action. As I have heard - It's often not what we don't know that's dangerous. It's what we know that we're sure we know.

A GIS is not a single map (ask any GIS geek, you can't draw just one map) and the system  cannot run itself once established. A fully functioning GIS takes intelligent people to acquire and manage the data, to analyze the relationship among the data, and not just answer questions like 'how many miles to here?' or  'how many commercial properties are within a certain distance of the highway?' The real value of GIS is our use of the maps beyond the piece of paper, our ability to take to data and become wiser about the choices we make in public safety and creating the truly resilient community.   

Well, it's just about time for my flight now, and I've got to finish my coffee, put my cell phone in my briefcase, take my computer out of my briefcase, empty my water bottle, untie my shoes. . . . 



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February 03, 2010

Here at the 2010 Conference for Critical Incident Preparedness (TCIP)... It's all about the PROCESS. Actually, it's not. It's really all about the RESULTS, but the process is the method we rely on to establish appropriate, useable standards that ensure that first responders are safe responding to, working at, and recovering from incidents, large or small.  In a panel discussion from 8 or 9 points of view, here are only two of the highlights that resonated with me. As a former bomb technician, I appreciate the work that has gone into designing a better bomb disposal suit. Ursula Wiebusch from the Hartford CT Police Department provided insight for the non-initiated explosives ordnance disposal attendees on what bomb squads do, face, and feel about safety.    How do you convince a insane person (i.e., bomb tech) to get into a suit that weighs up 70 pounds, looks like an earth-bound astronaut, and still has not guarantee that it is 100% safe? Is a hand really expendable in the line of duty? I donned a bomb suit many years ago (don't ask how many) and hoped that I would never have to do it again. (The suit was more frightening than the device.) The new materials and the detail in the design and performance standards that the new suit must meet will make the job safer for the folks that do have to wear them.  I still don't want to have to put another one in the line of duty, but those that do will be much safer than I was. And that feels good.  As a former fire fighter and NFPA staffer, I have always held high regard for the work the NFPA has done improving the safety of station and incident "turnout" clothing and personal protective equipment. NFPA Vice-President Bob Vondrasek outlined the success and validity of the NPFA process and the assistance NFPA provided to federal agencies in developing standards for specific personal protective equipment from basic fire fighter clothing to chemical-biological-radiological-nuclear suits and gear. Frankly, one the best feelings I had as an NFPA staff liaison was the satisfaction that I got from helping fire chiefs and fire fighters to be safer on the line. In some very small way, I may have made a difference in fire fighter safety in training, operations, or other aspect of a job that I so proudly held for many years.  The review of standards processes my not be the most exciting or riveting topic in a darkened ballroom after lunch, but the dedication and detail and concern that goes into the process of developing standards that enable emergency personnel to go return to family and friends each night is laudable. And, readers, that's only one of the sessions here at the TCIP Conference. Stay tuned for my review of the exhibits


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February 04, 2010

Here at the 2010 Technologies for Critical Incident Preparedness (TCIP) conference, the exhibits sort of look like a GIS meeting with an attitude.  The emphasis for this year's conference is heavy on GIS, spatial intelligence, situational awareness, and all the accompanying technologies. (Well, after all, the conference is Technologies for Critical Incident Preparedness.) Here's a quick tour of the exhibits hall. Down this aisle is the military applications (extremely cool stuff) from Google maps and Virtual USA to simulations to gadgets for starting fires to calming insurrections. The next aisle over features interoperability capability for just about anything that needs to be interoperable. (Have we actually reached operability, so we can move on to INTERoperability?) Anyway, the next aisle is all the R&D folks and they have… oh, I'm breathless. Overall, the technology is overwhelming. I actually had to have some coffee (i.e., caffeine) to calm down!  Seriously, we are operating in the future tense here. This is Star Trek, Star Wars, NCIS, and CIS in one room. Admittedly, there are few solutions looking for problems, but there's something else about this 2010 TCIP conference/exhibit that's not on the program or the list of exhibitors. It's more overwhelming than either. And that's the ideas, concepts, and possibilities being discussed in the sessions, in the hallways, and on the exhibit floor, among speakers, sponsoring agencies, and participants. The real value is there. The ability to ask 'what if' and have someone else say 'well, we can do that now' is quite an experience.  When I arrived, I thought 'I don't anybody here, I'm not sure I'll understand the technology' but it wasn't long till I made new acquaintances, increased my own technical knowledge and learned more than I thought I ever would in the short period of time I had.  A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that this would not be the kind of conference you wished you had stayed home and done something more productive (like counting paper clips). You should have listened to me. 


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February 05, 2010








Over the last 12 to 18 months, the activities of a relatively small group of renegade Somalis in small fishing boats in the Gulf of Aden terrorized the shipping world and those whose livelihoods depend on the freedom of the world's oceans. 
Last summer at the ESRI User Conference, a presentation of GIS time series analysis of the Somali piracy activities illustrated that the pirates' actions followed the adjustments of ships to evade the pirates. As the ships' captains changed course to avoid the pirates, the pirates reacted by changing their locations. Over time, the random  incidents of piracy became more strategic, while continuing to be tactically opportunistic.
Based on unclassified documents, here's the basic story and how geospatial and related intelligence contributed to the actual reduction in incidents. 
First, A brief historical perspective of piracy in Somalia.  Before 1991, piracy was controlled by functional Coast Guard and Navy operations. From 1991to 1995, the United Nations Operations in Somalia (UNISOM) maintained maritime security. Also be aware that during the initial periods of piracy in the early 1990s, the Somali Civil War was going on in the already politically unstable country. 
In the period from 1995-2000, Somali fishermen began having armed clashes with foreign fishing vessels.  Getting bolder from 2000 to 2004, Somali militias boarded and seized international fishing vessels.  From 2005 to 2007, Somali's Eastern clan seized 31 vessels as far as 200 nautical miles (nm) from the east coast.  As a result, the international shipping lanes were moved from 50nm to 200nm off coast.  In August of 2008, there was a sharp spike in piracy in Gulf of Aden, largely from the Somali's northern clan. That's when most of us began hearing the stories in the news.



 As a protective measure, the international Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) patrolled more than 2.5 million square miles of international waters to conduct both integrated and coordinated operations with a common purpose: to increase the security and prosperity of the region and establish the maritime environment as a safe place for mariners with legitimate business. According to the documents , Somali piracy is about money with no ties to terrorism (cautiously adding) -- yet.

By using a mission-based approach (which has no geographic boundaries), the task force considered adapting models from previous operations in other parts of the world, such as the Strait of Malacca (Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia). But the political instability of Somalia and Yemen presented difficulties in securing or expanding military or political cooperation. 



Mapping previous incidents and understanding how the pirates reacted to changes in shipping lanes was combined with cultural and meteoritical data to produce a map of optimal times for piracy to occur and make the task force activities more effective. Cultural indicators were, of course, religious holidays and observances, when all activity might be reduced, but the key was the meteorological information and predictive services for wave height, tidal currents, time of day, and so on. Visibility, wave heights, wind, and tidal movements made operating in small vessels extremely dangerous for the pirates. Though attempts might be made at anytime, the successful piracies decreased significantly when visibility was less than 2nm, waves were 3 to 7 feet (attempts greatly reduced with wave heights greater than 7 feet), winds were 10 to 15 knots (kts). Attempts were greatly reduced with wind gusts over 20kts. When the wave heights reached 3 to 7 feet, success of piracy was reduced. 





Detailed maps (like the one above) of expected wave heights, visibility, currents, and ships' positions helped international naval task force reduce piracy in the Gulf of Aden. 

The analysis of geospatial, cultural, political, and meteorological data provided Naval officers with a temporary solution to the Somali pirates. In 2007, 11 ships were pirated in the Gulf of Aden and off the east coast of Somalia. In 2008, piracy peaked with 120 confirmed attacks and 43 ships seized. Following the intervention of the combined task forces, the numbers were reduced to 32 confirmed attacks and 4 pirated ships. Since February 2008, there were 98 unsuccessful piracy attempts,largely due to attention paid to the threat by combined international naval operations. 
Piracy in the Gulf of Aden, with signifcantly increasing ransoms, will continue (even though news coverage has declined) to be an international problem requiring an international solution. The ultimate solution, of course, lies not on the ocean but ashore in Somalia in establishing conditions that preclude criminal activity at sea and ashore and returning stability, security, economic prosperity, governance, and the rule of law to a country that could pose another terrorist threat if only the outward symptoms of the problem are treated.



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February 09, 2010

It's a typical late afternoon at the fire station (or police precinct, etc.). The crew is discussing a training session recently completed online via the departmental intranet. Some move off to do a little more Internet research for their online degree course; a few cruise a list of offerings on their smart phones to catch the end of a television program missed while on call or check the latest comic routine on YouTube.  Each has, in someway in the past hour, used communications technology for learning, entertainment or social interaction over Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, Flickr, or Twitter. (Email is so last year!) Sound familiar? It may depend on your age group. But that's not the point. 

The point is evidenced in the "typical" alarm. A fire in an apartment complex is received by dispatch via cell phone. Your company is dispatched. The location is near the edge of your district and the prescribed route in the map book will take about 4-5 minutes to respond. Another company is dispatched as you board the engine and the doors open as second and third calls are received. Another typical day.

What makes this call different is that while it is fairly common for fire personnel to use common communications tools and networks, the value of these same tools used by the "public" is hardly acknowledged by many departments. Some departments even reject it. 

When your company arrives, the second company is just rounding the corner. You radio your visual assessment of the situation. Dispatch responds with additional information received from subsequent callers. Something about a riot of residents attacking someone they believe started the fire. Police are on the way.  

And so it goes, except for the fact that in the time it took you to respond, people who used their cell phones to send the alarm have already taken still photos and video on their cell phones and sent to their network of friends who forwarded to their networks who did the same, including the images of your company arriving with a date and time stamp included. Now, in the time it took you to respond, an estimated tens of thousands of people around the world now have more information than you. In fact, one or two are streaming the video to the local television station. Smile, your on the air. And you're in charge.

Mobile GIS capabilities contribute to your having the information that you need NOW. Improved response can be automatically generated by spatially analyzing the current status of companies, traffic congestion, restrictions, and the like. Dispatch could be monitoring social networks or the local television stations and feeding you the information en route.  Having street plans, locations of sewer drains, fire department connections, hydrants (with flow data), hazardous materials and environments, building and occupant data, streaming video of the incident scene, and other intelligence is situational awareness. Situational awareness is the issue and knowing real time information can save lives. 

In truth, more and more departments and agencies are beginning to use social networks and GIS technology to improve situational awareness. If yours is one, good job! If not, find more about the i mpact of social networking and GIS solutions for public safety today. 



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February 11, 2010

Planning, plans, forecasts, inventories, and adjustments in organizational design. Tools and activities of the possible future occurrence of ______________ (flood, terrorism, pandemic, wildfire, earthquake, active shooter, etc. - pick one or more). In case something like that ever happens here, the community's public safety forces will be ready. We'll just pull out the plan, turn on the computers, look at the maps, and manage the incident. REALLY?

I have an emergency generator because in 1991 our neighborhood lost power for several hours during a monster storm ("nor'easter" is the popular term). I remember bailing water as my basement sump pump was of no use. The more I bailed, the faster the water seeped in. The week after drying out, I bought the generator. I was so proud of it, I started once a week and went over the starting and use of the generator with my wife, just in case I was not around at the time of need. Everything was clear. She could start it, knew where the electrical connections were to be made, etc. We were prepared. 
In 1997, while I was away on business, we lost power again. My wife knew about the generator in the shed. The instructions on starting and using it were clearly marked. When I talked to her from sunny, warm California, she told me what a horrible time she had dragging the generator across the yard through the 8-inches of snow to plug it into the electrical connections. Realizing what information I had forgotten to give her, I carefully asked if she  saw the 100-ft. cable that would extend from the shed to the cellar connection. (oops!) 
With the exception of that unfortunate incident, we haven't had to use it since. But several times each year, the generator gets started, connections are made to the house, everything is checked, it's re-fueled and readied for nor'easter season. 
Periodic use is okay for emergency generators, a relatively simple solution for an infrequent need.  Unfortunately, a Geographic Information System (GIS) is nothing like a generator. GIS is an essential component of disaster preparedness and response, but it's also a complex and powerful tool. In order for it to be useful in disaster management, it must be used in day-to-day operations by the people responsible for it use in disasters.  
There's no time to train people in using a complex system as the water is pouring in, disease is spreading, buildings are falling. People need to use GIS every day in their normal jobs if they are expected to use it during times of emergency.  By the way, I hear this from nearly every discipline at nearly every level of GIS use - police, fire, public health, public works. 


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February 15, 2010

You no doubt heard the phrase "You can't get there from here." Several weeks ago, the Boston Globe carried an article on the problems of getting around certain areas of Boston. One way streets compound the challenges of narrow streets and endless traffic. While tourists are confused for a short time, transportation difficulties area a daily issue for emergency response.  But there is a lighter side to these difficulties. I would like to point out the work of Andy Woodruff, a Cambridge MA based cartographer. His imaginative work and creative projections are literally works of art. And fun.  Look at his blog and artistic approach to getting around Boston and while you're there, be sure to check out the other blogs and examples of GIS art - especially his heart-shaped projection of the globe for Valentine's Day. 


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February 17, 2010

 It's encouraging to the see how GIS has been elevated to the level of "essential" component for disaster/emergency preparedness by many public officials: "Well, we'll just get the data and draw the maps in a few minutes. Can't be that hard. They do it on TV all the time." While some may think this is a nonsensical approach to technology, it could be good sign in limited sort way.  Be careful not to criticize someone who sees GIS and related technology (like "While-U-Wait" forensic evidence ) used on TV and assumes that it works that way real life. It doesn't necessarily mean the person is living in a fantasy. It may be that the criticism is missing some historical perspective.  In the 1970s, America's favorite television programs included Adam-12, Emergency, and Marcus Welby, MD.  I realize that many readers may be familiar with these programs only from cable networks, if at all, but these programs portrayed the ultimate professional in law enforcement, fire/EMS, and medicine.  In reality, those fictional characters raised the bar for those they portrayed and helped shape the public safety we have today.  Social science studies in the 1980s documented the gaps between what the public saw on TV and what they experienced in reality. Viewers expressed frustration when personal physicians failed to measure up to the 24-hour caring and attention they saw from the fictional doctor. Police cruisers all across the country appeared with the now familiar slogan "To Protect and To Serve" and law enforcement enjoyed improved public relations - not just because of the letters painted on the cars but because of the way officers began to see and behave in their evolving roles. One of the more interesting phenomena resulted from Emergency. Fire departments whose traditional job was to respond to fires, began to consider EMS as valuable service that they could offer. Community hospitals and local fire personnel trained and worked together to improve the treatment and transport of accident victims, evolving into our model for emergency medical service delivery. The departments that resisted EMS found themselves with lower public opinion than those who accepted EMS as an extension of their public safety mission. Today, the three CSI programs, Numbers, and similar offerings portray GIS and other technologies in their own "the-future-is-now" ways. Numbers almost regularly incorporates a GIS component as law enforcement, fire, and emergency management track criminals, interrupt terrorist plots, and rescue lost hikers. In reality, spatial information is critical to the resolution of the daily work of public safety. Even though the popular use focuses on the results without considering the real work or the technology behind the story, the entertainment value of GIS and of other technologies is raising the public expectations.  Let's not be frustrated that we can't have "As Seen on TV" public safety environment right now. We just need to rely on imaginative, creative real professionals to make the future happen. 


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February 23, 2010

The issue of deforestation and changes in world forests is more evident each year.  I had the incredible opportunity to meet with climate researchers at the University of Manchester (UK) and discuss issues regarding wildfires, carbon sequestration, and growing concerns in emergency management issues, such as population movement and demographic changes.  Remote sensing and GIS mapping are the key technologies in developing what we know and project how our world may change and impact those changes may have on emergency management priorities in the 50 years. One of the specific areas I dealt with was the changes in forests and projections for more serious forest fires in the future. To help focus on a world view, the World Resources Institute offers a global forest map that shows the world's forests as they used to be and as they are today.
The maps green areas are the landscapes of today's forests. Brown areas represent estimates of historical forest coverâ€"areas where climate conditions are believed to have allowed forests to grow at some point after the latest glaciation, but where forests have been replaced by developed land and croplands (dark brown) or pastures and grasslands (light brown). Red areas show recent (2000 to 2005) tropical deforestation.  The website also offers information, a brochure, a powerpoint presentation, and a high resolution map.


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