How GIS is Protecting Our Most Vulnerable Citizens

Thursday night, GovLoop and Esri hosted the eighth and final GIS meetup of the year, Turn to GIS in an Emergency. We discussed how organizations are using geospatial technology to address the needs of vulnerable populations during emergencies and crises.

The event featured a presentation from Robert Shankman, GIS Program Manager, HHS ASPR, Office of Emergency Management and Alex Freiman, Epidemiologist, HHS ASPR, Office of Emergency Management. Their presentations showed that with GIS, organizations can give first responders, and the community, the right resources at the right time during a crisis situation.

But it’s more than just equipping responders with the data they need — it’s about knowing what story the data is telling them. Using GIS as a visualization tool, agencies can help show insights about the location and actions they can take to protect vulnerable populations. One tool that organizations use, like the Office of Emergency Management, is Esri’s Community Analyst tool.

The Community Analyst tool allows you to view and analyze demographic, public, and third party sources of data to better understand the overall community questions and make better policy decisions. With Community Analyst you can understand and compare communities more deeply and on a factual level. By using the thousands of variables available in Community Analyst, you can analyze specific locations, geographic areas, or custom regions you create on the map, then relay critical information and analysis to others via maps and reports, according to Esri’s website.

With Community Analyst and web-mapping applications, organizations can determine how and where they should provide food, shelter, transportation, medical and emotional support.

One example comes from the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR), which is the nation’s lead agency in preventing, preparing for, and responding to the adverse health effects of public health emergencies and disasters. The Office of Emergency Management (OEM) is responsible for developing operational plans, analytical products, and training exercises to ensure the preparedness of the Office, the Department, the Federal Government and the public to respond to and recover from domestic and international public health and medical threats and emergencies.

“When you start thinking about local areas, national capital region, any of the FEMA regions, that’s small with the area that we have to monitor,” said Shankman. “We run all the time, there is a lot of stuff going on in our office constantly, so now you can understand how important it is to understand our population, and knowing how to efficiently move resources depending on what the situation might be.”

For instance, Shankman shared a map the office created in response to the Ebola epidemic. The agency mapped confirmed cases in the U.S., hospitals that are volunteering to treat Ebola patients, and everyone who came in contact with Ebola patients. Often, the maps created by the Office of Emergency Management are used to brief the President on the status of relief efforts of a crisis.

Shankman provided an overview of the work of the agency, and how the office is helping during a crisis. Freiman built on Shankman’s comments and provided additional insights on the technical aspects of OEM’s work, and what kind of data they are looking at to help coordinate relief efforts.

“The demographic data provides key insights for the local community, we don’t want state level data for local disasters, and this requires a lot of data from a variety of sources,” said Freiman.

To identify people that are high risk during a crisis, the agency looks at demographic data, like the number of minors, over 65, gender, race, ethnicity, households with income, households with no vehicles, insurance status, pet ownership, home heating fuel type, and total population. Additionally, they look at health and language information.

With this demographic data, the OEM team runs a report to get an idea of who the vulnerable population is in an area. And then use this data to help inform their response. Within the tool, they use a comparison feature to compare to other geographies, like neighboring zip codes, counties, state and country.

Freiman shared one example that helps put the work of the office in context. “When we were responding to deep water horizon and we thought we had a good idea of what was going on, but looking at the language in that area, we were able to identify a Vietnamese population that was under served. We were able to take that information and translate information to provide better relief and help, providing the services that they need.”

Shankman and Freiman showed how GIS is helping an agency be more responsive during a crisis, and serving the need of vulnerable populations. “A slow product doesn’t help your decision making in a disaster, sometimes you have an hour, sometimes you have days, sometimes a half hour. So getting this stuff matters,” said Freiman. And with GIS, agencies can rest assured that teams have access to information to serve the needs of our most vulnerable citizens.

Esri was founded in 1969, it realized even then that geographic information system (GIS) technology could make a difference in society. GIS helps people to solve problems at local, regional, national, and global scales. Access maps and apps at Be sure to check out all the
 GIS resources produced by Esri and GovLoop.



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