How Interior, NGA, DHS provided a common picture for hurricane first responders

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With three major hurricanes wreaking havoc on the U.S., first responders and many others have a new tool to more clearly understand and visualize critical data.

At the request of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), an interagency team launched the Homeland Infrastructure Foundation Level Data (HIFLD), a single authoritative source of relevant data for use by local, state, federal, tribal, private-sector and community partners. The open data platform serves as a hub to aggregate and disseminate open data to support the mapping activities for hurricane response and recovery.

Tod Dabolt, the geospatial information officer in the Office of the CIO for the Department of the Interior, said this geospatial effort is making information sharing easier, better and faster than ever before.

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“We stood up a site for them in a matter of hours and are continuing to support their mission through a cross-agency partnership that includes DHS, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, and Interior,” Dabolt said in an interview with Federal News Radio. “One of the things during an event is making sure everyone has a common operating picture. To do that, it’s really essential we all start with the same data and information because within the event, you keep getting more and more information, and you want to keep people on the same page. We were delivering information like search-and-rescue grids that could be used by the local national guard, the state and other first responders who may not have immediate access to FEMA credentials. But they could go to the open data site, pull the resources down, either directly into their mapping application where they are at, or as geo-PDFs that they can put on a handheld to help them navigate when they are in the field.”

This is not the first time the geospatial community has come to the aid of first responders. But where once they provided DVDs to first responders, this was the first time Interior helped develop an open-data platform to provide real-time multi-layered information that can be easily viewed, no matter the device.

Dabolt said Interior used technology from Esri and web services to connect the disparate databases, which pulled information together.

“The data stayed in its normal resting place, but was packaged in a way that could open it up and free it to a wider variety of audiences,” he said. “In some cases, those [web] services were set up. For instance, NOAA for years now has been publishing the predictive path a hurricane may take. FEMA and the other agencies have access to that service endpoint. In that case, all we had to do was basically point users to the right service endpoint. It was helping users navigate the volume of data coming in from different sources and becoming a curation point for it, so that they were getting the most current, authoritative information at that point in time.”

In other cases, Dabolt said agencies or contractors had to develop the web services or application programming interface (API) and the platform would point to those service endpoints.

“One exciting thing that came out of this disaster that I can’t remember in any others was a private company stood up a web service to show which stores were open and not open in the affected areas. We were able to publish that data feed out or amplify that data feed out to the rest of the community,” he said.

First responders and other stakeholders can find an assortment of data on the platform, including critical infrastructure, hospitals, transportation and other sectors in the emergency response framework.

“We spent a lot of effort on the curation step, trying to de-conflict differing information sources and highlighting those that were the best available,” he said. “We sent messages out to federal agencies and state and local partners to send the service’s endpoints and any other data that they wanted to see on the open data site and we had ‘operators standing by’ to feed the site with that information.”

Dabolt said the initial platform was for first responders and others familiar with geospatial information, but as HIFLD matures, Interior and its agency partners want to see how they can use search and other forms of technology to improve the navigation for non-GIS users.

Dabolt said within the first 24 hours of the hurricane, the number of users spiked to over 1,000 and then trailed off.

The use of HIFLD for Hurricane Harvey as of Sept. 11:

  • Total hits: 8,663
  • Total users: 6,422
  • Total downloads: 1,157

“What we are thinking about, and it’s a work in progress with FEMA and the rest of the partners, [is] how do we set up diasters.geoplatform.gov as a way to be more sustainable, so if it’s a flooding event, here is where users will go, and so we are not creating a separate site for each flood, or tornado or earthquake,” Dabolt said. “That is some design work we will be doing iteratively with FEMA after things slow down a little bit.”

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