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Hurricane Matthew: Using GIS Technology During Disaster Response

By Kurt Binversie, Faculty Member, Intelligence Studies at American Military University

Hurricane Matthew, one of the strongest storms to hit the U.S. in decades, is currently battering Florida with powerful winds and heavy rains. Governors in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina have all declared states of emergency and issued evacuations for coastal residents. The storm has already proven its deadly power, causing massive damage and a growing death toll in Haiti with reports of at least 280 people killed.

To aid in disaster response efforts for Hurricane Matthew, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) released a website soliciting the help of the public. The site requests information about damage caused by Hurricane Matthew and individuals can report things like road closures, damaged structures and bridges, landslides, potential locations for helicopter landings, and other information that could assist with aid. Such information is consolidated in a geospatial intelligence system (GIS), which maps out areas of damage and provides disaster response personnel with current and real-time information about the storm’s destruction.

Soliciting the assistance of the public to identify critical and timely information during a disaster not only helps decisions makers know where assistance is needed most, but it also illustrates the value of geospatial intelligence systems (GIS) in disaster relief efforts.

How GIS Can Assist with Disaster Relief During Hurricane Matthew

GIS applications and GIS-based websites allow anyone with an internet connection to create, exploit, produce, and research physical locations on the Earth. There are a growing number of sites being used to assist first responders during disaster relief operations. The website Tomnod allows anyone—whether a novice or avid GIS enthusiast—to geotag one assigned grid square that is a 1,000 meters by 1,000 meters in diameter and add critical information for relief personnel.

[Related: Haiti Earthquake: The Role of Geospatial Intelligence During Response]

For example, someone using this website’s data can use real-time satellite information during Hurricane Matthew to identify damage so aid workers know what areas have been impacted and where to send resources. To help direct this effort, the Tomnod Search Group uses its Facebook page to provide instructions to users about how they can help during a natural disaster, such as by identifying debris and damage to roads, bridges, culverts during flooding. This site allows people from around the world to provide information and identify important objects and interesting places in satellite images. Using crowdsourcing, this information can be made readily available to both non-governmental organizations as well as government agencies that are working together during a disaster.

Another useful GIS web-based application is OSM Tasking Manager. This is a collaborative mapping tool, which divides up a mapping job into smaller tasks so it can be completed rapidly by multiple users. After a disaster, the site shows which areas need to be mapped as well as which ones need the mapping validated. These GIS-based websites are just a few of the many open-source intelligence sites that continue to gain interest from the public.

[Related: Playing Games: Incorporating Gamification and Open-Source Collection into Intelligence Studies]

Widespread Adoption of GIS Technology

GIS applications are a powerful tool as well as an enjoyable hobby for many people. Users can have fun exploring GIS web-based applications and learning about the capabilities and benefits. One doesn’t need to look further than the recent popularity of Pokémon Go. Pokémon Go requires a global positioning satellite to coordinate with a physical feature on Earth to show users where they can collect Pokémon. Such a game may encourage those without previous GIS experience to learn more about the technology and its benefits and expand the development of such applications.

The Dangerous Side of GIS

While there are many GIS websites and applications that are useful in aiding disaster relief personnel, some can have unintentional adverse implications. For instance, a person using GIS applications may unknowingly make themselves vulnerable to criminal activity. For example, by mapping a route from their residence to place of employment, individuals are sharing a large amount of personal information about where they live and where they work. Someone with ill-intentions may take advantage of that information. Even posting family vacation photos using Google photos would pinpoint someone’s location making them possibly vulnerable.

GIS-based technology will continue to prove useful for both the intelligence community and the public. As more people begin to understand the technology and contribute data in areas of uncertainty, it’s possible to build a thorough picture of what’s happening in critical situations. The speed at which we can build such information—such as tracking the damage of Hurricane Matthew—is invaluable to decision makers charged with organizing disaster relief efforts. However, such technological advancements must also be used with caution and apprehension to ensure information is used in the way it was intended.

Hurricane MatthewAbout the Author: Kurt Binversie is an active-duty Marine with more than 17 years of dedicated service. He is the Marine Corps Tactical Imagery Analysis Course Chief and holds a Master of Science and Technology degree from the National Intelligence University and is a graduate of National Defense Intelligence College (B.A. Intelligence). Binversie is currently an adjunct professor with American Military University. He may be contacted at

Leischen Kranick is a Managing Editor at AMU Edge. She has 15 years of experience writing articles and producing podcasts on topics relevant to law enforcement, fire services, emergency management, private security, and national security.

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