How GIS Is Modernizing Public Health Preparedness

The frequency and severity of emergencies and disasters is on the rise and public health preparedness professionals are increasingly on the frontlines of the response efforts. With limited time and budget to train staff and develop complex applications, organizations are increasingly leveraging their existing investments. One example is Esri’s ArcGIS software, which agencies are using to connect maps, apps, data and people across platforms and devices.

In GovLoop’s recent online training, Jared Shoultz, Health GIS Patterns Specialist; and Richard M. Leadbeater, Global Solutions Manager, State Government & Trade Associations Industries of Esri, discussed how geographic information systems (GIS) can address these issues and help move the public health field into the future.

“Public health agencies are facing budget restraints while having to plan emergency response and recovery strategies,” Leadbeater said. “It puts a tremendous amount of responsibility on public health agencies to make decisions under the most difficult circumstances.”

However, because the extent of a disaster’s aftereffects cannot be known, public health preparedness requires more than organizing an initial disaster response. “The agencies are there to provide actionable data to help coordinate efforts not only during the emergency, but after,” Leadbeater explained. “This includes efforts with other agencies, agency partners and other field workers.”

There are numerous steps of public health preparedness that involve collecting, sharing and using data to communicate with affected areas for education and relief services. “This is where ArcGIS comes in,” Leadbeater explained. “When disaster strikes, government needs to locate health services, victims and resources so they can save lives.”

Collecting and organizing data

“Collecting data before, during or after an event should be key competency for any organization,” Shoultz said.

With Esri’s configurable data tools and ArcGIS, public health workers can create surveys directly within a browser to collect field data about an incident location. “Since the survey can be done in a browser or smartphone, the phone’s capabilities can be used to capture location,” Shoultz explained. With the same tool, fieldworkers can preview the survey as it would appear on a smartphone, tablet or browser before publishing. “Then with the click of a button, you can easily publish the survey to anyone internal or external to your organization,” Shoultz said.

However, collecting information in the field is not the only data hurdle. “Agencies struggle to organize the enormous amount of data that they collect, including legacy data, new data from the field and peer agency data,” Leadbeater said. “But the one element all of the different data has in common is location.”

The key to organizing agency data is to map out existing incident locations and responding organizations in one common operating picture using an ArcGIS web map. Afterward, agencies can view current weather conditions, licensed facilities and information on the incident location using curated data.

Communicate findings

Public health agencies have to communicate findings within their programs and with peer agencies at the federal and local levels. “In public health, very few problems can be solved in a vacuum, so data sharing is crucial,” Shoultz insisted.

In order to facilitate data sharing, ArcGIS allows for collaboration between programs and agencies by creating a common operating picture that communicates findings. “With ArcGIS you can take information from a desktop environment [and] publish it out into a web map so that it’s accessible to more people,” Shoultz said. Sharing data through Esri web applications allows for data sharing across agencies and organization, therefore reducing redundancies in data and increasing efficiency.

Allocating resources and educating the public

Because public health agencies are on the frontlines, they have to build and maintain trust with the public to properly assist them in the face of disaster. ArcGIS gives public health agencies context by helping them create profiles of communities and improve outreach efforts and educational campaigns.

With the ArcGIS web map, agencies can perform an analysis on collected and existing data to filter citizens in incident locations by most affected, as well as demographic information. ”Demographic information such as income level, age and ethnicity can help you create an outreach campaign that will resonate with your audience,” Shoultz said.

This information can also help educate the public in the face of disaster. “It’s not necessarily true that people will utilize the resources agencies build. The average citizen may never go to a public health website, but these ArcGIS web tools are designed to reach people on the websites they do use, such as social media,” Soultz said. “Then communities can understand the risks as well as better utilize funding and resources.”

At the conclusion of the training, Shoultz and Leadbeater shared best practices for agencies that are hoping to utilize ArcGIS software. “A lot of organizations already have access to GIS software. As a first step, agencies should locate what resources they already have, figure out what their biggest challenges are and see where they can apply GIS to achieve the best results,” Shoultz advised. “You don’t need to be a GIS expert. Anyone with any type of technology can use these configurable applications.”


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