Resource Mapping to Foster Community Resilience: Can Crisis Mappers be Proactive?

Post by: Kim Stephens

The crisis mapping volunteer community and the United Nations are trying to develop more formal processes to create technical bridges between formal response organizations and the volunteer community. They also want to “cross-translate and cross-populate information especially after a sudden onset disaster or crisis, ” according this this source Cross-fertilisation of UN Common Operational Datasets and Crisismapping.

While these efforts may be a great step for those two communities, I do not think these effort apply to crises and disasters  in the US.  Here in the U.S.. the Dept. of Homeland Security (DHS) is designing resources for mapping and displaying crisis data for use by and for designated response personnel.  More specifically, Virtual USA is a platform designed to aid interoperability by allowing cross-state and cross-agency sharing of data .  So far, this system has been deployed to only a few states so outcomes are not yet well known.  In the private sector, major retailers, such as WalMart, are determining how they can incorporate their data (e.g., stores open in the impacted areas, donation shipments, etc.) into this platform.  To date, the platform is not public and has limited ability (mostly due to organizational issues) to incorporate information collected and curated by the volunteer community.

The big question: Can a system be created that supplements rather than supplants already existing emergency management operations in the US, and can it be designed to include public/volunteer participation?

First there is the issue of timing for the start of a crisis mapping effort. Erle Schuyler has made an interesting point when he said: “Crisis Mapping” is an inherently reactive practice. The disaster, whatever it is, has already happened by the time the mapping starts, which is almost by definition, the worst point in time to do anything. The best time to map a disaster, naturally, is before the disaster occurs.”

His point aligns with a concept I’ve been pondering: Resource Mapping for Community Resilience. Its somewhat simple on the surface:

  1. The map would be divided into vital resources with  pre-determined categories: food (local grocery stores); shelter (local hotels,motels, and even designated shelter locations); home improvement/hardware stores; hospitals & clinics; public buildings such as schools. Additionally, it could include vulnerable communities, such as retirement or nursing homes.
  2. The map would be readily available to the entire community–not just the responders.  It could be stored on the website of local or state emergency management agencies,  or with Red Cross chapters, which would enhance trust among the users. If the local emergency management agencies sanction it (or buy into the process), they could house the info on their servers. ( Decisions about how to update the information would have to be worked out.)
  3. Local businesses and national chains would be encouraged to participate by verifying location information, for example, and they should be encouraged to add their own data.

How would this work? In the event of a crisis, or even in the days before a known threat (e.g. hurricane or winter storm) retailers would be encouraged to update their “status” (e.g. store closed until further notice, or, store received no damage but will be open with limited hours; or store severely damaged, etc.). The same would apply for public buildings; for example, posting the note that schools are closed today.  These updates could easily be done from any location by authorized personnel.

Advantages of this system: The issue of verification is reduced, especially, if the retailers do the reporting.  No retailer would say they had damage to their store if they did not. If orange is the color demonstrating damage, one look at the map would enable both the public and response personnel a visualization of the impacted area.

There are several roles for volunteers, especially local volunteers.  Local trusted volunteers, such as CERT team members or the “Net Guard” could be recruited to:

  1. Help vital businesses understand the need to participate
  2. Help plot information on the community map in the preparedness phase
  3. Update information about the community after the crisis (especially if the business has not done so and is damaged/closed, for example)

More technically skilled volunteers will be needed to create applications potentially on already existing platforms, such as OpenStreetMap, or maybe even Google Maps. Data entry forms, etc. will need to be created along with the ability to show these maps for an entire state. A mobile application would be ideal, as well.

Some Key Challenges:

  1. Businesses may not want to put information about how long they will be closed, since that might affect their ability to compete
  2. Maps would have to show information from large regions/maybe state-wide in order to be helpful because sometimes resources are just a short drive away from the impact zone.
  3. If there is no power, and no Internet, how will the affected population see this information? Hopefully, this is where the smart-phone mobile app could play a role, but I envision this helping in mostly non-catastrophic events.

A similar concept is being implemented by an organization called  GeoNode with assistance from the World Bank. They are more focused on creating visualizations of data to help populations understand their natural disaster risk. Although the concepts are somewhat different their “roadmap” might have some useful information regarding needed features, for example, the need for a “web-based upload of data”.

Please let me know your thoughts.


21 responses to “Resource Mapping to Foster Community Resilience: Can Crisis Mappers be Proactive?

  1. Harry Colestock

    It is difficult to understand the purpose of this suggestion. There are already existing business processes which are more efficient and effective in achieving the goals of providing resources to disaster victims. As an emergency manager, I do not need to know where Wal-Mart has generators. I will not be managing their logistics system. I only need to know that they potentially carry in their inventory. It will be up to them to deliver the product or service. I need to know the locations of resources directly under my control, but that is about it. Too much information is as bad as too little information. Having information just to have information is a distraction no one wants in a crisis.

  2. You are thinking about this from an emergency manager’s point of view not a citizens point of view. How do I, as a citizen, find resources I need to help myself and therefore, not be so reliant on someone else to provide those resources for me? For example, if I’ve been without power for many days after a winter storm, do I go to a shelter or do I find a hotel that’s open? You as the emergency manager are responsible for opening those warming centers, especially for those in the population that might not be able to afford the luxury of going to a hotel. But there are large segments of the population that will be more-than willing to pay for shelter. Why not provide a map which allow for a way to aggregate information that would promote that self-reliance?

  3. I’m a disaster manager working for the UN in East Africa. The relevance of this discourse is very obvious to us in this part of the world. In fact, my office is working with various organizations, public and private sector, to do exactly what is being suggested. The opportunities and benefits seem limitless. In fact, one senior government official calls it ‘transformative’.
    I can only encourage this line of thinking and hope that we can find ways to cross-fertilize our experiences in both less and more developed societies, incorporating private and public sectors in disaster management.

    • Thank you so much for your comment and for the work that you are doing. I think lessons learned from the international community can and should be applied here in the US–sometimes we forget to look across the pond. But we need to think more broadly: how can we employ new and emerging technologies to empower people to be more resilient after a crisis?
      If you have any more information on what you all are doing, a website, for example that you could point me and my readers to, we would love to read more about it.

      • I work in Kenya and we used pre-crisis mapping extensively during our recent disaster preparedness planning in the run-up to the national constitutional referendum in August. Drawing on lessons from the last political crisis in 2007-8 (see lessons 5 & 6 in ), we mapped the various potential conflict zones including what and who was where. Doing this in the slums of Nairobi was extremely challenging but we used crowdsourcing technologies and local volunteers as well as pre-existing community maps (such as from to be able to understand who would be where, what capacities existed in the communities etc. We then incorporated this in the emergency coordination system using an sms platform for incidence reporting and response (since Kenya does not have a functional 911 system). The communications platforms were manned during the 48 hour period around the referendum.
        In the largest province of Rift Valley, a similar system was set up for communications to flow from districts to provincial headquarters. A more elaborate system incorporating communities was put in place in certain communities with linkages to the Kenya Red Cross Society as first responders.
        The referendum transpired without violence but the systems put in place will be further honed, shaped and improved over the next few months and years, expanded to other areas and other disasters in Kenya.Eventually, we will use this comunication system and community mapping to improve our pre- and post-disaster needs assessments and planning in a country where disasters are frequent and recurrent.
        A lot of this effort is captured on our website or in various reports. We use crowdsourcing and sms technology as well as GIS mapping to produce progression maps for slow-onset disasters such as drought, to track inter-communal and resource based conflicts, to improve communications on the management of crop pests, animal diseases, flood preparedness and response etc. Most of this work is in conjunction with various government ministries and departments but also with civil society, community leaders, NGOs, the UN system and the international community.

  4. I just added the citation for a major new report on Community Disaster Resilience, done by the National Academy of Sciences, to the Recovery Diva blog: (

    This report, which was done for DHS, primarily focuses on the research agenda needed to achieve more community resilience. Nevertheless, it does have a bearing on the new concept laid out by Kim in this posting.

    Claire B. Rubin

  5. Harry Colestock

    I would really like to have some face-to-face discussions on this issue. We use a geospatial tool to provide a major portion of our situational awareness for emergency response. This system is called VIPER (Virginia Interoperability Picture for Emergency Response). The system aggregates data from numerous sources including real time weather, traffic, river levels, earthquake data, hazardous materials events, cameras, etc. in relation to about 150 relatively static GIS layers of demographic, topographic, and other information. In addition, some analytic tools are used to calculate evacuation times, future flooding, alternate routing, and potential damage from a particular disaster event. While we also track information on our own resources, we have found that tracking of other’s resources (local and federal government, commercial sources, and NGO’s) is not as productive or reliable as needed to make resource decisions. Our effective processes involve broadcast systems to our disaster partners to ascertain both the existence AND availability of the resource. I would especially like to discuss this with the speaker in East Africa since I have a specific interest in that region. Kwa Heri.

  6. Harry Colestock

    I forgot to address the issue of having this resource information for individual disaster victims. For those areas that have suffered a significant disaster event, the loss of electric power often eliminates the telecommunications link to information. Having a IPAD or cell phone application to see where to get resources does little good if your batteries have no way to recharge and the cell towers have run out of fuel and battery power. This is usually where the emergency preparedness of disaster organizations comes in. They have that reserve and resources to help in these situations. One of the more important communications methods under these conditions is through those traditional organizations that people use: markets, entities that have repair materials, government services organizations (social services, etc.), and NGO presence(e.g.,Red Cross mobile units).

  7. Mr. Colestock:

    One of my worries is a major power or Internet outage that lasts for many days or weeks.
    Even with no deaths, injuries, or physical damages such as outage would wreak havoc on businesses and other enterprises.

    Are there means of providing power to large numbers of battery-powered devices?


    • During Hurricane Isabel (2003), much of Virginia was without electric power for about two weeks. Those facilities with auxiliary power continued to function fairly well, but they had to make sure they had fuel availability (not guaranteed when there is limited electric power). You are right about the reliance on the Internet by business, etc. Just the simple need to have store cash registers linked to payment systems and other accounting systems can require major changes in how transactions take place. Frozen and refrigerated food spoils, phone systems requiring electrical power fail, gas stations without auxiliary power cannot pump, traffic control devices stop working, etc.

  8. My hope is that a resource map would be built from the bottom up. Mr.Colestock mentions: “While we also track information on our own resources [State of Virginia] we have found that tracking of other’s resources (local and federal government, commercial sources, and NGO’s) is not as productive or reliable as needed to make resource decisions.”
    I’m envisioning a community map, built by and for the locals which then feeds into the State and Federal systems. I would hope that this approach would eliminate some of these resource tracking problems.

    Regarding the issue of power outages, if an area has suffered significant damage and cell towers are down, etc. this type of community map would still have value. Quite a few businesses, particularly big-box types are owned and operated from central offices. These businesses would be able to enter information regarding their stores’ status after a crisis. Smart programers could design, or add to existing coordination platforms, portals that allow for either public or “gov’t eyes only” viewing. This would ease entrepreneurs’ concerns about giving details regarding their exact status. (e.g. “We will be out of business at that location indefinitely”. The public map might just indicate “closed”.) For businesses that remain open, even if the public can’t power up their computer to find the info., local governments could then understand what resources were available in the private sector. (Reliable urban legend has it that a Point of Distribution was set up next to a big box store only to find the store was open!)

    Even small locally owned businesses would probably be able to find a way to update their information, especially if the owners or managers have evacuated to a location with power. They might not know the damage to their establishment, but they would obviously know if they were closed or not. This would also be a good way for employees to know and understand what has happened to their place of employment.

    Encouraging businesses to “crowdsource” their own information on to a community map would be a first step, but having that information available in one trusted location, I think, would prove to be an invaluable first step. (I am not under the delusion, however, that this would be easy!)

  9. Harry Colestock

    I really like the idea of offering a “community” map of open establishments following a disaster event. There may be some legal issues associated with access to all who want to “advertise” that they are open. In those areas that there is no electronic means to pass this information, a screen-print placed in common gathering areas would suffice. The ability to roll up the information on a statewide or regional basis would help in determining areas in need of the most help. Keeping the data current might be difficult, but a persistent information manager can make that happen if they are given the right tools.

  10. I’m glad you like the general concept. I do appreciate the dialog.

    I think businesses would see the value and eventually come on board. I’m envisioning something that looks a little like Google maps, but with the ability of the icons to be color-coded and categorized. The free open software OpenStreetMap does this, but it would need to be integrated into existing State and local platforms (such as the VIPER system you have)–I’m not a programmer–more technically savvy people will have to work out the kinks. It will be important to keep the user-interface in mind, whatever is developed. Categories, for example, would help people find the services they need, and updating information will need to be intuitive as well.

    Re: advertising. I don’t think the resource map would be considered “advertising”. The map should exist pre-event with key partners–grocery stores, for example, provide a vital service. The fact that both the public and gov’t know they are open, closed or working under partial hours, is valuable community information and off the top of my head, I can’t see why it would cause legal problems. To avoid any legal concerns, though, localities should allow all businesses the opportunity to participate.

    Businesses would be responsible for keeping their own data current. I would hope, after they see it in action, that they would begin to make updating the map a priority.

    • I had some conversations today with folks from California who apparently are looking at something similar. One of the keys is to have a powerful server system to host or link to the business data sources and a means to allow the data owner to vet access to only those that they want to have access to the GIS layer they feed. This could get cumbersome in having hundreds of layers, but a skilled GIS analyst should be able to sort the data layers and create a user-friendly sourcing methodology.

  11. Thanks for looking into this further with other emergency managers. Please feel free to contact me offline, I’d like to see what others are doing as well.
    You are right, the public doesn’t need all of the resource logistics information, but it would be great if they were able to have access to some categories (see comment above).

  12. I think the idea of Resource Mapping for Community Resilience is a great one, and is as well something that many communities have been doing. The framework I have used is John Mckight’s Asset Based Community Development. He breaks down the community into a series of assets – individual, neighbourhood and institutional. You then “map” these different assets. What is interesting is that he was not using the term “mapping” as we are now using. In fact, what he spoke to my Masters in Management course about 10 years back and I suggested that we actually create maps he completely dismissed the idea – he was looking at mapping as solely a community development process and at most an inventory.

    I continued working with an organization and further developed the asset based mapping concept, both as a form of development – engaging people in determining and mapping their assets in a commnity versus their needs – as well as creating the actual map to be used beyond the process. As the technology advanced, so did the ability of use and share these maps.

    In talking with the MapKibera folk I see the questions being asked as the next step beyond just using these mapping processes in disasters, but looking about how they fit into increasing the resilience of communities to withstand disasters, and as well using mapping in their everyday lives. The challenges that MapKibera are now faced with are how to increase the capacity of community members in slums to maintain, use and further advance the mapping systems, versus being dependent on outside expertise. In the end, if they can do so, they will assist the community in dealing with and preparing for disasters independently. And, in the end, is that not what we want?

  13. No good idea goes unadopted! Learned on Wednesday that FEMA is constructing a geospatial tool called SAVER (Situational Awareness Viewer for Emergency Response). This tool will be all things to all people in a disaster, from disaster survivors who can find out if private sector locations are open or closed to senior decision makers who can view large areas of for critical infrastructure restoration priortization. It is not in the “ready for prime time” mode, but the concept appears workable, and the resources of FEMA/DHS to encourage private partners to share data is considerable.

  14. Pingback: FEMA’s S.A.V.E.R. platform « idisaster 2.0

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s