Emergency Management, GIS, & Data Privacy

In the wake of disasters, it is critical that emergency response is timely and accurate in order to deal with mitigating, responding, and recovering from these events. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have revolutionized the way technology and data-driven maps are used to deal with the preliminary as well as the current and lasting impacts of natural disasters.

Esri, a leading global software company, refers to GIS technology as the “intelligent nervous system,” as it compiles data from various sources and serves as a kind of modern mapping approach that “takes into account ever-changing inputs in a particular area.” The platform compiles area-specific and population-derived data to develop emergency management tactics; these include but are not limited to hazard mapping for floodplains and fault lines, analyzing the potential destruction of hurricanes or storms, tracking the location and supply levels of support following a disaster, and creating computer-generated maps of key infrastructure to be used for recovery efforts.

In 2017, Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, leaving residents without power and limited food and water for months on end. As people sought aid and relief, they did not know where to turn or who to ask. Then, a small group of volunteers and developers created CrowdRescueHQ Puerto Rico Map, a tool that improved communication, first response, and relief efforts overall. Residents could quickly communicate what they needed and emergency responders with access to the map could quickly gain new insights on where and how they could help. After Hurricane Harvey struck Houston that same year, developers from Crowdsource Rescue worked on geolocating calls for help and identifying them on a map, so that those who were able to assist could rescue trapped or stranded people. This public safety platform has helped over 50,000 people in Houston, but also in the Carolinas following Hurricane Florence and in Florida following Hurricane Michael.

The above mentioned examples represent situations where GIS is used in emergency management following a disaster, but the technology can also be used to help individuals understand what is at risk before an emergency event takes place. ReadySanDiego.org, for example, was created by the San Diego County Office of Emergency Services in partnership with the Department of Homeland Security to alert residents about hazards that might impact the area where they live. Users enter their address into the platform and the site leverages spatial data to assess the likelihood of disasters like wildfires occurring in their area. It even educates individuals on these hazards, sharing advice about how to be prepared in case of a particular emergency. Overall, GIS can be used to predict what populations will be affected, determine how to get resources where they are most needed, and track progress toward recovery.

Using GIS in emergency management involves planning, analysis, and action. These components of emergency planning can be improved by using spatial analysis, which seeks to analyze patterns of human activity in a particular area. When used in a proper manner, spatial analysis can help emergency responders act and prevent fatalities, injuries, and damage in order to help communities return to a normal state as quickly and safely as possible. It can be used to send out real-time alerts to populations at risk, model for emergency situations like tsunamis, oil spills, and forest fires, and determine physical, social, and economic vulnerabilities in various locations.

It is important to note that with the use of geospatial technologies and their data, certain issues concerning privacy, security, and surveillance may arise. Visual data capture from remote sensing technologies has the potential to directly or indirectly observe private property and capture sensitive personal information. This in part violates individuals’ privacy and potentially places them in harm’s way. For example, for visual data captured through remote viewing or satellite imagery, there is little possibility for individuals to provide informed consent for this type of data collection and therefore for any subsequent analysis or dissemination of the data. Additionally, privacy and data protection standards may be largely non-existent in many countries where geospatial data is collected. This is especially problematic in development and humanitarian contexts where data is frequently shared between agencies, donors, and NGOs. Data might be directly or indirectly shared with the private sector and/or state entities, which are not typically bound by human rights or humanitarian standards. Access to this data may be the consequence of transmitting sensitive information using platforms where privacy can be breached via coercion or hacking.

All phases of emergency management ultimately depend on data from a variety of sources. In order to determine the size and scope of emergency situations, appropriate data needs to be gathered, organized, and displayed logically. Emergencies require attention from a number of groups – mostly in the government – who often need detailed information to make critical decisions. By utilizing GIS, each department can share information through databases on computer-generated maps in a singular location. Despite the profound and timely uses of GIS in emergency responses, issues related to consent, data use, and privacy nonetheless prevail. GIS serves as a critical platform for consolidating information and cutting down the time required to respond to an emergency, but all those using the platform should be aware of the ethical concerns at hand. Taking all of this into consideration, users at both the government and citizen levels can make informed decisions on how to use and share data.


Interested in the ethics of geospatial data? Check out our Locus Charter, a geospatial data ethics community centered around ten principles related to the risks and opportunities of location data.