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Disaster Maps

New GIS Initiatives at SISAT

Forget water. Forget canned food. School of Information Systems and Technology (SISAT) faculty member Brian Hilton is demonstrating that the most important resource after a natural disaster might just be a good map.

These are not the maps you fold up and keep in your glove compartment, and Hilton is not a cartographer (though he has taken cartography classes). Hilton – whose background is in economics and information technology – creates digital maps that contain multiple, potentially infinite, layers of information. And since information is often the most valuable resource after a disaster, these maps have the ability to save hundreds or thousands of lives. Working with world leaders in relief, development, and GIS (geographic information systems) software, Hilton’s maps have already been put to use in Haiti, Japan, and West Africa.

Fittingly, CGU’s own geographic location might be one of its biggest assets in developing disaster-related GIS maps. Monrovia, California, 25 miles west of campus, is home to World Vision International (WVI), the largest faith-based NGO in the world and one of the largest disaster relief and development agencies operating today. WVI is active in over 100 countries and manages a $2.6 billion annual revenue stream. Three years ago, WVI formed a partnership with SISAT to help them design and develop GIS-based solutions to support the work of their Humanitarian Emergency Affairs division.

Thirty-five miles east of Claremont is the headquarters for the Redlands-based Esri International, the largest GIS software developer in the world. CGU was one of the first universities to partner with Esri as an Esri Development Center (EDC), which is housed in SISAT. The EDC helps facilitate and expand GIS use in faculty and student research projects, and serves to develop prototypical GIS solutions applied to a wide range of real-world needs. But it is most pressing for those living in disaster-afflicted areas. That is why Hilton and his team of students develop GIS maps for disaster preparedness and response, and unfortunately, this has been a busy year.

The January 2010 earthquake in Haiti devastated an already impoverished region. As many already know, underdeveloped infrastructure led to a far greater loss of life than would have occurred in a first-world country. Additionally, the lack of precise information greatly hindered relief efforts. That is one of the reasons why World Vision, which rushed in after the earthquake, has never left.

In the United States, certain things are largely taken for granted, like knowing where our hospitals are located and which freeways will take us there. Also, few Americans ever have to set out on foot in search of clean drinking water. In Haiti, relief workers often don’t know where aid stations are located, and even if they do, they still have trouble finding cleared streets, or even passable paths and back roads. But one of the silver linings of the earthquake for Haitians is the massive increase in data collection. Those with certain GPS (global positioning system) equipment and software can upload the coordinates of nearly anything to websites like OpenStreetMap. For the past year, that’s what volunteer, ad-hoc cartographers have been doing all over Haiti, providing a heretofore unimaginable wealth of accurate and up-to-date information to GIS programmers like Hilton.

“This is local knowledge, information you get from people who are actually there in the country, that’s what’s most valuable,” said Hilton. “That’s the information relief workers and relief agencies need to be able to make decisions.”

Unbeknownst to many around the world, Haiti has also been struggling with a cholera outbreak since October 2010, with hundreds of thousands of reported cases and over 5,000 fatalities. Though there are scores of relief agencies operating in the country, information sharing is not yet the norm and there is no central agency that provides comprehensive lists of treatment centers and clean water sources (cholera is spread through contaminated water). Due to this lack of coordination, relief workers often don’t know where to direct people in need of medical treatment or water.

That is why Brian Carlson, World Vision’s IT director for Humanitarian and Emergency Affairs (HEA), traveled to Haiti in early 2011 to compile a list of cholera treatment centers. He sent a spreadsheet with all the locations he could find to Hilton, who augmented that list with additional treatment centers obtained by the United States Centers for Disease Control. Coupling these locations with information from OpenStreetMap, which is constantly updated, Hilton was able to create a GIS map with layers including near-comprehensive (and expandable) lists of treatment centers and water sources along with detailed and accurate routes for reaching them.

Hilton’s map of Haiti, now available online to anyone with an Internet connection, will hopefully serve as a replacement for the traditional methods of data collection and decision-making: “There is a pressing knowledge-management issue in Haiti, and in most of these underdeveloped countries,” Hilton said. “Decision-makers don’t have data. What they have is someone who knows the area and keeps all this information in their head. If a disaster happens, this person steps up and helps direct relief and displaced people, but what happens if this person is killed in the disaster? What happens if they retire?”

One country with a different set of problems is Japan. The combination of a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, huge tsunamis, and damaged power plants this March created unique challenges. That series of events was so unexpected and unprecedented that relief agencies never even imagined it in their worst-case scenario planning. “No one ever planned for this,” said Carlson. “We are faced with having to make decisions and take actions that we haven’t had to before.”

This is why the GIS map Hilton put together after the Japanese earthquake was so important. Without any prior preparations, he had to work assiduously to create a map addressing what quickly became the most pressing issue for World Vision: nuclear fallout.

Hilton first created a layer with the locations of all the Japanese power plants affected by the earthquake, and included images provided by DigitalGlobe, a commercial vendor of space imagery and geospatial content. The Japanese government created evacuation zones around these power plants, so Hilton created another layer, with each plant’s respective buffer zone. Through Esri, Hilton was able to obtain satellite images from the Department of Defense’s National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. These images were used in a new layer that included photos of what the beaches looked like before and after the earthquake and tsunamis.

After completing these layers of geographic and visual information, Hilton could add the demographic data within the evacuation zones. This is where the abundance of information in Japan becomes vital. “The important thing about data is, the more granular you can make it, the better,” he said. “How much of that population is able-bodied, so they can evacuate on foot if there are no roads? How many people are infirm? How many are in hospitals? How many are over 65? Over 75? Younger than five? You could really get down to hair and eye color if you have the data. There’s no limit.”

“The Japan situation awareness map was used extensively at the start of World Vision’s response, with heavy emphasis on its ability to enable Remote Sensing capabilities,” said Carlson. “Through the use of the data sets this application provided, World Vision was able to estimate population impact, transportation and infrastructure disruption, and radiation exclusion zones.”

Most recently, Hilton’s GIS work is shifting from disaster response to disaster preparedness. In May, he attended World Vision’s annual forum on relief in Cape Town, South Africa, where he and Carlson presented their latest project on combating the seasonal emergencies in Western Africa. Mark Janz, planning director for World Vision HEA, began working with Hilton in December 2010 on the mapping planning application for West Africa. In addition to Janz, Hilton also worked closely with HEA West Africa Regional Director Paul Sitnam and Maryada Vallet, a master of public health student from the University of California, Los Angeles.

“Most of the disasters in West Africa are predictable,” said Hilton. “We know if it’s the rainy season, there will be mosquitoes, which means malaria or meningitis. Then, three months after the rainy season, it will be locust season, which can decimate crops and cause food shortages.”

Using a PDF from the World Food Program that listed seasonal hazards by country, Hilton created an interactive GIS map. For example, users could select the month of May and see that Mali and its neighboring country of Senegal will have locusts. Subsequently, Hilton has been creating additional layers to increase the map’s effectiveness. One of the recent additions includes constantly updated data from Columbia University, which uses a 10-day estimate of daily rainfall and their own algorithm to predict malarial outbreaks.

Hilton and Carlson’s presentation in Cape Town was greeted with enthusiasm, and the two were able to meet with West African aid workers on potential new layers that would make the map even more helpful. One idea would help combat food shortages. During these shortages, there is often an increased risk of hijacking of food-delivery trucks. Knowing where these hijackings take place could lead drivers to take safer routes or allow dispatchers to put security in particularly dangerous or vulnerable locations.

While Hilton’s work has certainly been impactful, advances in technology and CGU’s strategic partnerships ensure that his mapping will only grow more integral to disaster relief and preparedness. On the technology front, Hilton’s home in SISAT will prove to be a distinct advantage. Most university GIS programs are housed in geography schools, not IS or IT programs. The school also provides SISAT students – including Joe Roberts, who recently received the Outstanding Student of the Year award from Esri – to assist in current and future GIS mapping projects. And there is the potential for future collaboration with students from the School of Community and Global Health.

But perhaps most importantly, CGU’s relationships with World Vision and Esri position the university to lead ambitious future projects as well. There is clearly a need for this, and the size, relationships, and experience of the school make Claremont a natural landing place, as it already has been for World Vision and Esri.

“What I think is great is that we’re working with World Vision International, the world’s largest NGO, and they use our maps, which are extremely powerful and can save thousands of lives,” said Hilton. “They have billions of dollars at their disposal and they came here to get these tools. They could have gone anywhere, but they came here.”

To see Hilton’s maps and learn more about how they are being put into use, visit Humanitarian Trends (, which is a joint project of CGU and World Vision.


“This is local knowledge, information you get from people who are actually there in the country, that’s what’s most valuable.”

“Through the use of the data sets this application provided, World Vision was able to estimate population impact, transportation and infrastructure disruption, and radiation exclusion zones.”

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