GIS tool prepped for emergencies

ATLANTA — Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are creating a system to allow health officials and first responders to access geographic information to aid in the response to a bioterrorist attack.

The Health Informatics Office is finishing the final phase of the geographic information system (GIS) architecture that will soon bring maps and geospacial data to emergency workers and epidemiologists in the field. The Web-based system, to be completed in early December, will tap into CDC's data bank and analysis tools.

"We must think of our technology as being usable by those who can make the best use of it," Nabil Issa, associate director for the health informatics office in CDC's National Center for Environmental Health. The system would give "nontech-savvy" people a chance to access critical data about time and space in real time, he said.

This final phase is known as the Spatial Epidemiology and Emergency Management (SEEM) system. The system draws on data from the environmental public health spatial data repository at CDC, which includes census data, maps, aerial and satellite photos, and locations of landmarks such as schools and hospitals.

For example, if state and local health officials respond to a chemical spill in a river, the system will immediately display maps of the area, identifying population concentration along the river and schools in the area. First responders can quickly assess the incident and determine the appropriate use of resources.

SEEM is one of three components for retrieving information through the GIS architecture. Another part is the Environmental Public Health Geography Network application, which provides a one-stop portal for spatial data for use by health officials with the appropriate GIS software and knowledge. It enables local and state officials to overlay their information to the data in the GIS architecture without having to give that often sensitive information to CDC. The third part is an Internet GIS application for the publishing of general geographical information.

Issa said about 80 percent of the architecture is in place, and building and organizing the data repository is the project's most complex piece.

Also by December, officials plan to have handheld devices that will transmit data from the field back the GIS data store. First responders in the field would download a questionnaire created during the incident and enter data, relaying information relevant to the particular incident.

"You don't know what data you need until you need it," Issa said. "You need to know the progress and the feedback. That would complete the cycle of the GIS system."

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