Cover Image
close this bookEmergency Information Management and Telecommunications - 1st Edition (Department of Humanitarian Affairs/United Nations Disaster Relief Office - Disaster Management Training Programme - United Nations Development Programme , 1997, 62 p.)
close this folderPart 1: Information management systems
close this folderData gathering and emergency management
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentEstablishing the baseline
View the documentQuantitative vs. qualitative methods of data gathering
View the documentThe need for an “inter-agency” approach
View the documentHardware and software tools for data-gathering

Hardware and software tools for data-gathering

There is a wide range of tools available to assist emergency managers with their data-gathering needs. Descriptions and examples of actual uses of some of these follow:

Geographic information systems and remote sensing: For years, maps have helped decision makers to determine trends, patterns, and distance relationships; they remain particularly valuable as a focus for group discussions and choices. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are computer systems that allow users to collect, store, manipulate, link together, analyze, update, and present “geospatial” data. In mapping data stored in spreadsheets or databases that have a geographic component, a GIS enables users to see patterns, relationships, and trends that cannot be seen in normal data tables. A GIS allows users to select and remove any of the data categories from the map, thereby enabling quick analysis of how different factors might affect a decision.

The factor that distinguishes a GIS from other information management technologies is that it deals with spatial information. As such, a GIS requires spatial data to be gathered by location and attribute. Location may be annotated by x, y, and z coordinates of longitude, latitude, and elevation, or by such systems as postal codes. Each particular location may have a number of associated characteristics, properties or attributes - for example: vegetation cover, soil type, altitude, rainfall pattern - which can be measured and recorded, and consequently inter-related by a GIS quickly and much more easily than any manual system.

GIS packages are particularly powerful in detecting patterns and answering “what-if” scenarios. A few of the many GIS applications for disaster management include quantification of the total expected losses in a particular location from a flood; postal code-based maps of seismic effects such as ground shaking; and forecasts of locations where the heaviest damage from an earthquake may be located.

A surge in the availability of remote sensing data is greatly benefiting the spread of GIS. In brief, remote sensing involves making measurements of the earth from sensors, such as cameras carried on aircraft, satellites, or other devices. The sensors collect data in the form of images which can consequently be manipulated, analyzed, and visualized. These data can also be converted and used as input to GIS.

Remote sensing via satellites can play an important role in disaster and emergency warnings. It can be used, for example, to establish evacuation routes; to modify emergency plans based on an ongoing knowledge of changing conditions; to provide information on natural phenomena such as weather patterns or mudslides; and to identify logistical bottlenecks such as roads or rail lines blocked by the disaster. (Emergency managers must consider the possible constraints to the collection of remote sensing data imposed by governments who object to another country’s satellites flying over their territory taking pictures.)

GIS is increasingly used by emergency managers in those areas where a considerable amount of digitized computer-readable data already exists and in a form that can be easily converted for studies of risk, vulnerability, and response. Much of the data routinely collected by governments is geographically referenced (by latitude and longitude, place name, or postal code), thereby permitting various types of information to be spatially related.

GIS is increasingly used by emergency managers in those areas where a considerable amount of digitized computer readable data already exists.

Much of this information falls into the following broad categories:

· economic, social, and environmental statistics;
· geologic and topographic surveys;
· business registration data and accounting information;
· land registration data; and
· meteorological and hydrological data.

The willingness of parties to share data and resources is often limited because of fragmented and inconsistent data sets, incompatible data formats, and the cost of integrated data management. The development of standards for the gathering and storage of spatially referenced data is likely to be one of the most effective long term investments that emergency managers can promote. The formation of local GIS user groups may be an effective way of furthering this process.

Successful use of GIS by the wider disaster-management community depends greatly on diffusion of “geographic literacy” and on an in-depth understanding of the technical and analytical limitations of the technology. Key factors to assess when considering use of GIS to conduct geospatial analysis include the quality of the assumptions which underpin the model and the analytical methodology, the quality of the data gathered, and, of course, the cost of gathering data.


GIS example: The Quito Earthquake Risk Management Project

This pilot project in Quito, Ecuador, which involved staff from national and city governments and international earthquake specialists, encouraged direct involvement of local officials and the community in formulating ways of protecting people and public facilities against earthquake damage. Officials, in their efforts to encourage community understanding of the earthquake risk facing the city, used GIS tools to detail some of the likely consequences of particular earthquake scenarios.

The GIS relied on an existing baseline of digitized data from seismology and soil engineering in the region, and an existing GIS database at the Quito Municipality. The research involved classification of urban structures according to their earthquake resistance, location, and estimates of the expected behavior of each structural type under seismic conditions. Special structures such as hospitals, schools, and industrial facilities, the sewerage system, water reservoir tanks, transmission towers, oil stations, and the airport were examined in detail and precise locations recorded. The core activity involved the development of maps to establish vulnerable areas. Estimated damage was computed for three hypothetical earthquakes.

GIS map outputs were used as group focus tools in a series of discussions with city and national officials. Scenarios were developed covering the hours, days and weeks following a major earthquake. Then meetings were held to recommend solutions and implementation plans. Observers agreed that the process of obtaining commitment from local stakeholders was at least as important as the technical GIS mapping process.

Ground shaking intensities in Quito resulting from the local earthquake.

GIS Example: Flood warning in Bangladesh

GIS tools are being applied worldwide in flood prevention. In Bangladesh, the Disaster Management Bureau, working with a U.S. NGO, used GIS to develop an early warning procedure for areas prone to cyclone-generated floods. Flood patterns are also being mapped to guide the construction of more permanent facilities in areas least prone to flooding; less permanent structures are recommended for areas identified as most at risk.

Global positioning systems: The Global Positioning System or “GPS” is a satellite and computer-based triangulation (“locating”) system used to measure precise locations of positions anywhere on earth. The high accuracy obtainable with the Global Positioning System also makes it a precision survey instrument. Civilian use of GPS technology has escalated in recent years as the cost of hand-held GPS receivers decreases and new applications are realized. Uses include numerous applications in the fields of navigation, engineering, surveying and resource management. The emergency management community is just beginning to explore the myriad possible uses of GPS in data gathering.. GPS data, for example, are used in GIS applications to pinpoint critical locations in emergency preparedness mapping exercises.

GPS examples

Security in Sudan: The World Food Programme/Sudan uses GPS to monitor the precise location of its Nile River barges as they pass through insecure areas of the country delivering food assistance to the victims of war. The barges are equipped with GPS receivers and radio transmitters, and barge operators are trained to transmit their location coordinates every two hours. They are tracked by the WFP Office of Logistics in Khartoum. In the event that a barge encounters a hostile situation, WFP can readily locate and evacuate its barge crews by airplane.

Damage assessment in the U.S. A private U.S. firm under contract to the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is using GPS/GIS technology to provide rapid damage assessment data for federal and state disaster officials during and after emergency crises such as the Mississippi floods, Hurricane Andrew, and the California earthquakes. Information, which normally requires weeks to gather, is acquired within days. Instant digital maps, detailing road conditions, damaged housing, downed power lines, or toxic releases, are transmitted to FEMA and state agency headquarters for planning and response purposes.

Epi-Info: Developed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this personal computer-based software is designed to assist emergency assessment teams with the collection and on-site analysis of epidemiological data. The software assists the user to set up and process a data-collection questionnaire in minutes and also forms the basis for a disease surveillance system database. The software is made available by WHO and CDC and is not copyrighted; indeed, users are encouraged to make copies for others.

World Wide Web: This Internet-based information system is fast becoming one of the most useful information-gathering facilities in the world. Emergency managers can find on the Web daily situation reports concerning most of the world’s emergency situations filed by many response organizations, including DHA, the World Food Programme, and UNHCR. Information is available on telecommunications, prevailing health conditions in emergency-affected countries, visa requirements - the list is literally endless as more and more organizations and individuals go “on-line.” As well, the HTML and JPEG software protocols used by the Web to display text and images are fast becoming (unofficial) “standards” by which different organizations can easily share information across diverse hardware platforms.

A key concern for those emergency managers who must consider the cost of gathering information is the relatively high cost of Web use in remote locations. The Web is a graphics-oriented facility which means users may have to wait extended periods for highly graphic images to be downloaded to their computers; this can add greatly to telecommunications costs. One possible solution is for headquarters offices which often have low-cost, local access to the Internet (and, therefore, to the Web) to do the downloading themselves of requested materials, subtract the graphic images from needed documents, and then forward the text of the document through conventional telecommunications means to their field offices.


Refugee malnutrition in Zenon. An early needs assessment of the refugees north of Montano notes few apparent nutritional problems. Red Cross volunteers who arrive on the scene to hand out the few tents and blankets available report apparently little hunger amongst the refugees, many of whom have carried supplies with them in their exodus from Nortenia. The refugees, at this time, appear to be in relatively good condition.

Two weeks into the emergency, however, a few severe cases of child malnutrition are observed by a visiting public health nurse and reported back to the Ministry of Health. This surprises the EPC Director who has been assured by his assistant (who is the EPC attendee at the meetings of the Association of Humanitarian Agencies in Zenon or “AHAZ”, an NGO coordinating group) that food supplies purchased near Capital City are reaching the refugees on a regular basis. “Malnutrition!” the EPC director gasps. “Then what in blazes are they doing with all the food we’ve sent?”

Q. You are the EPC director. What issues or problems do you confront with regards to data gathering? What steps will you take to deal with these issues or problems?.

A. ____________________________________________________________