Flooding into GIS

Written by Paul Clarke on 22 September 2014 in Opinion

Paul Clarke on how local authorities can make use of GIS technology to deal better with future flooding events.

As the latest in a long run of extreme weather events impacting the UK, last winter’s floods brought damage and disruption to large swathes of the country. One of the groups most affected were the local authorities responsible for risk management, maintaining infrastructure and keeping the public continuously informed about unfolding events.

Local authorities are primarily concerned with building vibrant economies and resilient communities. So, protecting those communities when disasters hit is key to their role.  

These kinds of events are by their nature unpredictable – but forward planning is nevertheless critical to deliver an effective response.

In the words of President Barack Obama, “We’re going to have to stop looking at these disasters as something to wait for, we’ve got to start looking at these disasters as something to prepare for, to anticipate, to start building new infrastructure; to start having new plans, to recalibrate the baseline that we’re working off of.”    

It is a sentiment that every local authority should share. Yet, the challenge often comes when they look to turn this vision into a practical strategy.

And it is in rolling out this strategy that geographic information systems (GIS), mapping and location analytics can play such a critical role.

It is important to recognise that the flood event itself is a hazard and becomes a disaster only when the event intersects with vulnerable assets and populations.

In the event of a flood, for example, infrastructure assets from drains to gullies to sea walls will need to be continuously maintained as a preventative measure to protect vulnerable assets and crucially vulnerable people.

GIS can be leveraged to assess their effectiveness and quality, to understand where the pinch points lie and to define a spatial workflow to determine where resources can be best allocated to have the maximum positive impact.

In this kind of scenario, local authorities can also use GIS and location analytics to better understand the location of vulnerable populations and the wider theatre of operations with which they are dealing.

And ask the questions that need to be asked. For example, when a flood strikes, which areas are most likely to be impacted next? Who is at risk? How can emergency services and the community most effectively use the transport network to evacuate the vulnerable and to keep businesses and critical services operating?

Getting the message out there

Even when it comes to communicating the message to a wider public, location analytics can be crucial.

In the event of a disaster, local authorities that can collect information from social media and view the results spatially, will be most effective at understanding the geographic spread of people, how they are being affected and where they are experiencing the biggest problems.

Once again, floods are a case in point. With so many people across the UK using social media from GPS enabled smartphones, a vast pool of information can be effectively crowd-sourced.

The challenge for local authorities is how can they get access to that information, and make use of it in such a way so that it can easily consumed by the public?

It’s a familiar scenario - a local authority captures a host of information on their own website about a natural disaster but it’s tabular, hard to access and difficult to understand.

They need to make best use of the latest GIS and location analytics technology to be able to reconfigure the data and publish it in a way that is more graphic and easier to follow; that enables the public to visualise what is happening on the ground in real-time.  

Quite simply, on an interactive, online map.

Making best use of the technology

Of course, all of this is reliant on the fact that councils and local authorities across the country are using GIS systems and that their IT professionals have the skills and expertise to work with them and that local government is making optimum use of the solutions in order to deliver the best possible services to the public at times of need. 

The current prognosis is good. There are approximately 440 local authorities across England, every one of which is using GIS in one way or another.

The new Local Authority Software Applications (LASA) Crown Commercial Service framework is providing a route to market for the acquisition of software and related solutions that further supports councils in delivering the kinds of services their citizens need.  

Adding to the positive picture, the latest GIS solutions are designed to be intuitive and easy-to-use by non-specialists - and local government GIS users are increasingly comfortable with them and

Cloud-based delivery means that these systems easily scale for peaks in demand.

The issue within local authorities is in harnessing the full benefits of the technology.

Often, we see councils using GIS in planning and in transportation, for example, but not in flood management.

There needs to be more internal marketing of the benefits to really spread the word.

In many ways, that is the last missing piece in the puzzle. GIS, mapping and location analytics offer huge potential benefits to local authorities in terms of planning for disasters, in managing the response after they have occurred, and in keeping the public safe and informed.

The right GIS technology is increasingly in place, councils and the IT professionals that work for them are increasingly comfortable in using it.

We just need to make sure that local authorities are spreading the word across their own organisations about the benefits that GIS can bring.

And if that happens, flooding relief and disaster will be one of the areas best placed to benefit.

Paul Clarke is head of local and devolved Government at geographic information systems provider Esri UK


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