On the evening of August 8th, Maui experienced its deadliest fire in a century, killing over 115 people and burning 8.7 square kilometres in Lahaina. The recovery is still ongoing as the US government and humanitarian agencies continue to provide aid. Kelowna and Osoyoos experienced similarly disastrous, damaging 50 structures and burning 110 square kilometres and 30 square kilometres, respectively.
In disasters like the ones we saw this summer, data is a crucial piece of the response and recovery puzzle. It works beneath the surface to support critical services, like emergency response teams, energy companies and humanitarian aid.
So what do communities do when a fire has completely altered its landscape, and how do organizations assess different risks while trying to literally put out multiple fires? It all comes back to data. To get a deeper look at how data is helping communities across North America, we spoke with data experts Don Murray and Dale Lutz, co-founders and co-CEOs at Safe Software, a Surrey-based software company.
What is geospatial data?
Dale: Geospatial data–aka spatial data–describes any data related to or containing information about a specific location on the Earth’s surface. Non-spatial data, on the other hand, is data that is independent of geographic location, like attributes including size, material, and more.
Don: Geospatial data is the foundation of GIS–geographic information systems–the type of software used in location intelligence and mapping. Now, it’s hard to find an industry that isn’t using geospatial data in one way or another. You can find it across government agencies, like those helping to assess emergency response. GIS and geospatial data are also being used in airports or to track infectious diseases like COVID-19– it’s even being used to help farmers save wildlife in Germany.
Why is data critical to response and recovery teams?
Don: During a natural disaster, we see physical landscapes change dramatically. Mapping work allows responders to have the most up-to-date information possible. Additional data like where utility lines are, or even where a building once stood–is critically important as buildings are searched, evacuated and eventually recovered. Visualizing the impact of potential floods or droughts, this data is vital. While municipalities and other organizations have much of this data at their fingertips, the ability to integrate multiple forms of data allows municipalities to reduce the time spent gathering information before they begin the recovery process.
Dale: To make decisions, organizations need a system to take in all available data at its disposal and integrate it. This helps them make decisions such as which building to prioritize during a fire; a brick building on Street A or a wood-frame building on Street B.? Data isn’t just helpful during a disaster. It feeds into disaster preparation to mitigate loss, too. The best defence during a crisis is being prepared.
How is spatial data used in disaster situations like the wildfires we saw in Maui and Kelowna this summer?
Don: Emergency responders deal with an extraordinary amount of data every day. With over 38,000 wildfires in 2023 across North America alone, responders and their communities have used spatial data to keep track of the fire response and identify critical areas in need. Aggregated data, including spatial data, is critical to governmental organizations and nongovernmental humanitarian organizations to make key decisions in emergency and disaster management planning, coordination, and response to large disasters.
Dale: Specifically, FME has been used in Maui to assist with aiding the recovery effort after the area’s worst fire in decades. The software was used by the Pacific Disaster Centre (PDC) to help process and share data updates with the general public and the US government. PDC uses FME to aggregate data so they can vigilantly monitor threats such as earthquakes, cyclones, and wildfires. During the Maui wildfires, the PDC used FME to create new informational maps for the community with on-the-ground verified spatial data. This information was then used by the U.S. Department of Defense for humanitarian aid and disaster management decision-making.
Why is data critical for communities to mitigate the impacts of emergencies?
Dale: Data, especially spatial data, enables emergency response organizations to integrate thousands of data points to get a clearer picture, mitigate damage during an active disaster, and promote recovery after the dust has settled.