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Briefing sheet

How geospatial information helps overcome a major crisis

10 November 2016

This report by Marc Hobell of ICE's Geospatial Expert Panel focuses on finding certainty in an uncertain world by applying Geospatial Information (GI) and how GI can help overcome a major crisis.

 How geospatial information helps overcome a major crisis
A huge wave crashes into the sea wall at Ilfracombe, North Devon.

In recent years we've seen geography underpin the response to a range of different national and regional emergencies ranging from flooding and terrorism to pandemic flu – all of which have endangered parts of our critical infrastructure. Government then published the new National Security Strategy [National Security Strategy, HM Government October 2010] and set out the kind of threats we can expect to face now and in the future, including that posed by cyber terrorism.

Of course Geospatial doesn't map 'cyber-space' so it doesn't directly help with the final issue but it does map 'physical space' and a cyber attack can be used to cause damage to the real world and to real people, potentially with an even greater impact than more traditional threats.

Whatever the incident, whether it's flooding, a cyber-attack or something completely different, GI provides a common platform on which to undertake a strategic assessment – from a regional level down to the impact on individual properties – to inform scenario planning and explore options and their consequences. It can feed into all stages of the process - prevention, protection, response and recovery, and can improve the quality and timeliness of decision-making, providing a single view of complex information helping to reduce duplication and cut costs.

How geospatial information has been used

Given the myriad of differing organisations, bodies and companies involved in emergency planning and response, geography is really the only way of quickly visualising information in a consistent and integrated way. Geospatial Information, both in hard copy and digital formats, provides a common, easy to understand situational platform, integrating complex and diverse information for a number of different responders.

Use of geospatial data.
Use of geospatial data.

Bristol City Council

As an example, through the use of GI based emergency planning tools, Bristol City Council has reduced the amount of time it takes to produce analysis, maps and reports of relevant geographic data from 6 hours to approximately 20 minutes. This huge improvement supports those involved in the response effort, providing rapid access to accurate and detailed data. This enhances the decision-making process, provides a clear platform to inform communication between responders and will essentially speed up response times and save lives.

GI helps provide the full picture helping to pinpoint emerging risks and highlight the consequence of loss. It also identifies sites with special requirements such as hospitals and schools that will be a priority for supply or evacuation, or places that are useful during an emergency like leisure centres. It is also being used to identify sites for emergency command centres, therefore avoiding places that are vulnerable, either to attack or to the incident itself.

Tewksbury Flooding

Of course, simply locating an incident and where it might have a potential impact is in itself useful, but not the whole story. It does not take away the operational decision making process; just provides a common situational platform. By linking secondary information to geographic data, such as the locations of hydrants, places likely to home vulnerable people or the classification of buildings as residential or industrial and so on, it adds a valuable dimension to any analysis helping to inform resource planning and incident prediction.

During flooding in Tewksbury, geographic data helped pinpoint where flood defence barriers would be most needed as well as the areas likely to be most in danger of flooding. When roads became impassable it also formed the basis for quickly identifying the best route for emergency vehicles and vital supplies.

This intelligence can also inform contingency planning so that the most suitable routes to major public sites or high risk locations can be identified in advance, whilst taking into account areas that might be flooded or otherwise inaccessible.

North Yorkshire flooding

This flooding issue seems to be on the increase in the United Kingdom. In December 2015, storms Desmond and Eva flooded 16,000 homes in England.

A similar situation to that in Tewksbury unfolded in Tadcaster which included making repairs to Tadcaster Bridge in North Yorkshire – the bridge collapsed in the severe floods. This also led to significant widespread river, surface and fluvialflooding, affecting people, properties and infrastructure. The town was split in two and residents were evacuated from their homes and some key travel routes, including the main railway line, were closed either by flooding or landslides. Several schools were also closed and a residential home evacuated. An initial re-route was identified, with residents having to take a 10 mile detour to get from one side to the other; costs for repairs were estimated at £3m with up to a year to complete.

The question should be whether the government's £2.3bn capital budget over six years for flood defences was enough given the government may have underestimated the climate change risk to the country. Rather than taking a local response every time the floods hit with promises and random numbers that are forgotten post event, we need a long-term co-ordinated approach, in which geospatial information can deliver a common framework for long term decision making.

Using Geospatial information as a common framework it is possible to plan for events and issues, identify high risk areas for maintenance and coordinate the response more effectively. Geographic information was used to visualise on screen the relationship between reports of flooding and potential problem areas and high risk buildings, such as homes for the elderly, schools and community centres.

Caerphilly Emergency Control Room

By integrating geospatial data, staff at the Caerphilly Emergency Control Room were able to make significant improvements in the speed and accuracy of the decisions made during the floods. Making specific use of GI enabled staff to place multiple reports into a single context, helping to identify patterns in the incident while ensuring people and assets were moved using the safest possible routes.

North Devon Coastal Flooding

Streets were flooded in coastal areas as high spring tides and gale force winds swept in from the Atlantic. Hundreds of homes were evacuated and residents in other areas were warned to keep a bag packed in case they had to leave their homes at short notice. The picture above captures the moment a huge wave crashes into the sea wall at Ilfracombe, North Devon.


Using GI provided context to all their work as described in the above examples is a reminder as to why a consistent, authoritative and detailed picture of the entire country's geography remains so important.

Related ICE information

  • Rabinder Phull, knowledge content producer at ICE