Another post-Katrina problem: What happened to the street?

Hurricane response highlighted the need to standardize digital maps

Emergency responders dispatched to disaster scenes face one of their biggest obstacles in trying to find victims in the midst of chaos. Hurricanes, floods and bombs knock down street signs, which serve as guides for rescue workers. Global Positioning System devices and print-on-demand maps offer rescuers navigation aids that were unavailable even a decade ago.

As useful as those devices are, however, local, state and federal relief workers don’t always have enough data, enough GPS devices or adequate technical understanding to use coordinate systems effectively.

Some federal agencies pinpoint locations with a geospatial data standard called the National Grid. Local governments use latitude and longitude, and some states rely on their own coordinate systems. When disaster strikes, relief workers can’t easily coordinate data to aid their search-and-rescue efforts.

The interoperability problem came to a head after Hurricane Katrina hit. For example, a volunteer firefighter from Mississippi, who also runs a university geographic information system center, had to recruit 60 volunteers to make maps for first responders because none were available. Making matters worse, when the Homeland Security Department’s GIS leader arrived at the scene, he did not have the necessary equipment, personnel or computer connectivity to help. It took more than two weeks for those resources to arrive and another week to deploy them.

Mapmaking and map reading are important to recovery efforts, but map interoperability is not a priority for most local, state and federal agencies, some GIS experts say. Talbot Brooks, director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Geospatial Information Technologies at Delta State University, who volunteered during Katrina, said the federal government needs to set and enforce some standards.

Brooks advocates a coordinate system called the National Grid. Based on the metric system, the grid unambiguously communicates the coordinates for the location where an organization or person can be reached. Grid points complement street addresses but do not replace them.

By adopting the National Grid as a standard for maps at all levels of government, all emergency responders would be able to share map information easily, Brooks said. “It’s a matter of getting the data together beforehand and not in a reactionary mode,” he said.

A handful of federal agencies, including the Interior Department’s U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the interagency Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC) and the National Geodetic Survey of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, want to educate policy-makers and the public about GIS information sharing for emergency preparedness.

USGS officials say the best solution lies in Geospatial One-Stop, a Web portal that combines thousands of geographic resources from federal, state, local and private entities. “What we need as a nation is a system that will allow GIS data to be shared and made available for situations like emergencies,” said Hank Garie, former executive director of the portal and former chief of geographic information integration and analysis at USGS.

A major complication in integrating all the data is acquiring the data. Many localities are reluctant to share maps because they contain private information, such as home addresses, while some local governments sell their data to make money. To persuade local areas to contribute to Geospatial One-Stop, USGS uses passwords given only to authorized officials to protect sensitive data.

USGS’ efforts are working, albeit slowly, Garie said. Some Gulf Coast areas contributed to Geospatial One-Stop before and after Hurricane Katrina, and that data collection aided hurricane relief efforts, Garie said.

But the Geospatial One-Stop warehouse alone is not the answer, say GIS specialists who want the federal government to push for widespread adoption of the National Grid. “Unfortunately, disasters don’t occur just along a street, especially wildfires out West,” said Richard Hogan, chief of geography operations at USGS. “How are you going to tell your first responders to get there?”

The National Grid is a simple tool that doesn’t require GPS devices or additional money, said Hogan, who is a former chairman of the FGDC group that approved the National Grid standard. He acknowledges that U.S. society is unfamiliar with the grid and largely unfamiliar with the use of map coordinates in general. Katrina should have been a wake-up call but that wasn’t the case, Hogan said.

His colleague, FGDC deputy staff director Leslie Armstrong, said she would like to see local regions blanket all guidebooks, tourism materials and bus stop maps with the grid. Nationwide adoption will not work through a top-down effort, she said. “Local governments, states and commercial manufacturers need to step up to the plate, too.”

The private sector is a major GIS provider at all levels of government. For example, GIS software company ESRI operates the Geospatial One-Stop portal.

Clint Brown, ESRI’s director of software products, said the company facilitates use of the National Grid as a common mechanism for specifying locations but does not view it as the only mechanism.

“In order for GIS to be most effective, it must support the existing practices and methodologies applied by a broad range of user communities,” Brown said.

Geospatial One-Stop will just be an empty data bank unless the government makes it easy for users to submit information in multiple formats, said Pat Cummens, ESRI’s senior adviser for government projects who is involved in the project.

Submitting metadata, in whatever language, to one interoperable data repository is critical, Cummens said.

“Think of the portal as more of a utility, like, say, a search engine, the mechanism for people to search for, find and interact with data,” Cummens said. “Until someone puts information on the search engine, you can’t find it. Having the tools is the first step. Getting people to populate it is the next step.”

For the most part, local agencies are not welcoming the grid.

Brooks, the National Grid advocate, said such partiality to different coordinate systems will impede national rescue efforts.

During Katrina, the U.S. Coast Guard needed a set of latitude and longitude coordinates to perform a rescue because their crews were trained using those coordinates. Street address or local coordinate systems were of no use, Brooks said.

“Our team in Jackson, Miss., provided [the U.S. Coast Guard] with latitude-longitude coordinates they could understand, but sometimes these were not detailed enough…for a precise pickup.” This sometimes resulted in time delays when helicopter rescue crews had to sort out the right house, he said.

GIS to the rescue

The rescue response to Hurricane Katrina depended extensively on sharing data from geographic information systems.

Emergency workers communicated location points using many classification systems, including addresses, linear referencing, latitude and longitude, the National Grid, and local coordinate systems. Technologies deployed during the rescue and relief efforts had to support all those values. Rescue workers shared datasets in a number of formats, including JPEG, TIFF and Oracle Spatial.

Mapping efforts combined datasets from many organizations and transformed the data into customized information for broad dissemination. Often, users needed to translate the data to meet specialized mapping requirements.

Computer models transformed this GIS data into graphics and charts that first responders could follow, including maps of hazard zones susceptible to flooding, calculations for debris removal and demographic analysis of affected residents.

Follow the yellow brick road

District of Columbia officials said they plan to introduce the National Grid even though few other local governments are excited about the geospatial data standard. By using the D.C. government’s geographic information system Web site http://dcgis.dc.gov, visitors can pinpoint locations via the National Grid.

Another project, a master address repository, lists the grid coordinates of any city address. Although all city agencies can access the repository, none are using the grid function yet, said Barney Krucoff, GIS director for Washington, D.C. To apply the grid citywide, officials would need to train everyone from firefighters and police officers to 911 operators, Krucoff said.

D.C. GIS systems can convert grid points to other coordinate formats and vice versa in the event that first responders use multiple geolocation systems.

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