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Conference Salutes Technology for Storm Preps, Emergency Response

Nov. 19, 2008 — As Hurricane Omar turned its eye on the Caribbean last month, thousands of residents kept their eyes glued to television or computer screens for continuous updates on the path of the storm, relying on digital-mapping technology to tell them exactly when and where the storm was likely to hit.
Residents also knew, from looking at the maps, which areas of the Caribbean would get the most moisture from the storm, or the highest winds. It's easy to take this kind of technology for granted, but the truth is that it would be much harder for the territory to prepare and respond to natural disasters such as Omar without it. Recent advancements in these geospatial-information systems (GIS), as they're called, have also made it possible for first-responder agencies to look at — and learn from — the characteristics and impact of each storm to prepare for future disasters.
And that's just one scenario. During the recent presidential election, many citizens were able to keep tabs at what was going on at the polls by tuning into CNN, whose analysts tracked voting patterns and displayed available census data on a color-coded map of the nation. Though this kind of technology was not available four years ago, it has since become an integral part of a world in which the demand for accurate, real-time data has increased and slowly woven its way into many aspects of everyday life, according to experts speaking at this year's 4th Annual GIS Conference on St. Thomas.
The three-day conference, held at Wyndham Sugar Bay Resort, is being hosted by the Office of the Lieutenant Governor in conjunction with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The goal of the conference is to build awareness of what resources are available within the territory, explore opportunities that would lead to the development of a comprehensive GIS database and collaborate with other regional agencies in sharing the kind of data that could help the territory with disaster efforts and infrastructure planning, according to presenters.
"… (L)ocal and federal partners will be able to share information that would help with crime analysis, the protection of our environment and emergency-response systems," Lt. Gov. Gregory R. Francis said Wednesday morning as he officially opened the conference. "It means longterm and immediate benefits — this technology will help an ambulance crew navigate the roads to save someone in distress."
Resource Management
Speaking globally, many speakers outlined how GIS data has been used over the years to help governments manage their resources. This kind of data and data technology has become even more important as the nation's economy continues to tank and the impact of global warming causes disastrous effects on the environment, according to Jack Dangermond, president of ESRI.
"Here in the Virgin Islands, building wise plans for the future is going to be challenging," Dangermond said in a video message played to conference participants. "But the evidence around the world is that GIS is making substantial changes in the way we do things. GIS is also changing how we reason, and allow us to think about the relationships between things, the process of nature and human activities."
Looking locally, other speakers detailed how GIS information has been used as far back as the late 1980s to track powerful storms such as Hurricane Hugo. Advancements made over the years have allowed agencies such as FEMA to upgrade their information-sharing abilities. Through its national post-storm data acquisition program, for example, FEMA was able to superimpose images of Hurricane Omar — and the damage it caused to St. Croix — on Google Earth, which were easily accessible to the public, according to Brian Shumon from the risk-analysis branch of FEMA Region II.
"The goal of this program is to identify what the resources and capabilities of each agency working along with us are so we can use them," Shumon said. "It allows us to develop our coordination efforts before, after and during storms, and it gives us the ability to share resources and prepare summaries so we can create archives detailing the characteristics of each storm so we can learn from them."
Another type of software used by FEMA serves as a risk-assessment tool for earthquake, flood and hurricane-wind hazards, he said. The system considers each type of disaster individually, what area it's going to impact and what kind of damages — such as economic and social losses — will result.
GIS Evolution
Different types of geospatial-information systems have been used within the territory for years, starting with the University of the Virgin Islands, whose Eastern Caribbean Center offers digital imaging and mapping services, according to Stevie Henry, incoming chairman of the V.I. Geospatial Information Council.
"The ultimate goal of all this is to create a single database for the territory full of consistent data," Henry said. "Because really, every day, a wealth of information is being collected. Say you go to WAPA to sign up for service — they ask you a bunch of questions that are entered into a database. You get the same questions when you go to the phone company. What we see right now is a lot of geospatial information being used to make a plan for emergency-response efforts, but our goal is also to create something for everyday use that can help improve our quality of service."
The territory's Tax Assessor's Office has been using GIS data for years, according to Tax Assessor Roy L. Martin. Digital maps found on the office's system help employees access property information, along with roadway system and topography maps.
The V.I. Water and Power Authority has also integrated GIS technology into its water-distribution system, coming up with easier ways for employees to read water meters, measure consumption patterns and detect water losses, according to Elisa Sanchez, a civil engineer at the authority.
One device, called a transponder, sends out a signal that transmits information from individual water meters to WAPA technicians. The information is then quickly uploaded onto the computer. With this technology, it only takes about a minute to read 30 meters, and about 20 minutes to read 400 meters, said Rupert Pelle, representing the authority's water-distribution system.
When the GIS movement came to UVI, a focus was also placed on protecting the territory's environment, according to Basil Ottley Jr., primary policy analyst for the Virgin Islands at the U.S. Interior Department's Office of Insular Affairs.
"I was part of the Eastern Caribbean Center when they received the grant to begin the GIS component," said Ottley, who has a background in planning. "And in looking at building these important databases for the Virgin Islands, we thought, 'OK, so how do we begin building a data set for first responders while also beginning to compile information to protect the environmental needs that we're always talking about?' It's amazing to see how the technology has evolved from what we were looking at then, and how UVI has managed to keep pace with these changes."
Having access to the kind of geospatial information relative to the territory is of "vital importance" to Ottley in his new role at the Interior Department.
"The desk officers are always interested in how to expand the decision-making processes of the insular territories," he explained. "To do that, we have to get a better idea of all the resources we have available to work with, especially since we serve as a point of contact with other federal agencies when it comes to what's going on in these areas."
Looking at the territory, Ottley said he sees GIS data playing a major role in the development of economic-development initiatives, such as devices that can guide tourists to his
torical areas and sites.
"I know there's a company that wants to come in and do this," he said. "If people can find when they come to a destination that they can go and explore on their own, it gives them a chance to experience things independently, and makes them feel more self-sufficient."
It's only a matter of time before these "smart" GIS devices begin to play a major role in people's lives, he said.
"Right now, the GIS systems in your car can tell you the best way to get to a particular destination. Imagine what will happen when they begin telling you how to avoid accidents, how to keep safe — it shows that this kind of technology is really going to begin to weave itself into our everyday lifestyle. Now that's really exciting."
The conference runs through Friday at the Wyndham.
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