A firefighter in San Diego pulls out his blackberry and sees that the wind direction has changed and the ridgeline above him as about to burst into flames. A police helicopter crew in Houston observes flash flooding at an intersection and all traffic lights leading to the area change to red. The Mayor of Philadelphia clicks his way down a street from his computer screen in City Hall, counting abandoned houses. Hardly the stuff of science fiction, hazards mapping is rapidly moving the knowledge frontier for first responders, hazards researchers, and urban officials.
Many of you will remember the revelation that was Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood. When it started in 2000, this site was a mind-blowing combo of urban storytelling and “On this site …” signage. The gee-whizdom of Beller turned serious on 9/11 when people’s grief and shock started to take on a geographical dimension. National Public Radio’s Sonic Memorial Project elaborated the idea. And, going a step further towards mapping the attacks as they unfolded, the 911 call transcripts, and some audio of the calls were made available in 2006 after the New York Times sued for their release. Fire protection experts, including the official investigatory team at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, used both simulations and real photographs and video to reconstruct the WTC’s collapse. All of these tools make for some compelling after-the-fact conclusions. But, if there had been a system in the buildings to relay images, heat and smoke measurements, and to indicate the locations of trapped victims, it might have been possible to speed the evacuation, and to save the lives of first responders who charged upstairs to their deaths.
Now, with the increasing availability of Geographic Information System (GIS) applications, it looks like we may soon arrive at a place where disasters are documented in real time and tracked on disaster maps that anyone with access to the web — but especially first responders — can use. Researchers at San Diego State University are moving wildfire mapping in just this direction. As the most recent fires were underway, major newspapers featured Google maps with flags pointing out active fires, their paths, and their swaths of destruction.
Such developments, while techno-utopian, also revive in a serious way discussions of the “digital divide.” As of now, use of GIS to cover disaster-in-motion is ad hoc, local, and seemingly completely unregulated. Will the Department of Homeland Security invest research dollars into these technologies, and will the public demand that they be used equitably?