Hazard mapping is the process of locating natural hazards, including their physical relationship to people. Its primary focus has shifted over time from the modeling of physical events to the interaction between people and their environment. The U.S. has become a leader in hazard mapping, largely due to its diversity of natural hazards. The integration of technologies such as Global Information Systems (GISs) into the emergency management cycle is also improving the ability to recover utilities and other infrastructural components after a natural disaster.

Emergency Applications

GIS maps are highly useful in locating utility hazards such as flood zones and seismic faults, but they also provide other benefits for emergency managers. These maps can also give managers situational awareness by helping them to visualize and analyze hazardous areas. They can also identify the best locations to place assets before an event occurs. Hazard mitigation uses GIS to analyze the relationship between social vulnerability and hazard exposure. Decision-makers use GIS models to simulate responses during a disaster and develop appropriate recovery plans. Essentially, GIS can map any type of data to make better decisions in less time.

Emergency managers also need to partner with local organizations to assist in mapping and analyzing methods of protecting utilities during a disaster. These partners can be local colleges or user’s groups for HAZUS, which is a GIS-based tool developed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). These groups are likely to contain members who are both interested and skilled in utility location. Local planning councils and other government departments also make strong partners for hazard planning. Emergency managers should assess and mitigate specific hazards rather than participate in the overall planning process when working with government partners.


GIS also plays a critical role in developing models for applying GIS data in the real world. These models often use cutting-edge technology integrated with existing programs, which may be adopted by other organizations. This process requires emergency managers to work together for the purpose of developing a common GIS-based emergency management program for utilities. Emergency managers will often have mechanisms in place that prevent them from formally adopting GIS practices, but a willingness to improve disaster recovery capabilities can result in greater collaboration.

The choice of software for developing GIS models is often dictated by the expertise and resources already available. In particular, a complete implementation of GIS software may not be practical if an organization doesn’t have a GIS expert to serve as a dedicated administrator for the software. Such organizations may need to just use the best available data from existing sources instead of collecting and mapping data for a fully functional modeling application.

Mobile Technology

Mobile technologies are currently revolutionizing emergency management by collecting GIS mapping data in the field. Workers can collect data on their mobile device and immediately upload it to the cloud, where it can be retrieved and stored on local servers. This capability reduces data processing time and error rates, allowing organizations to generate maps more quickly as compared to previous methods that required data to be stored for prolonged periods before it could be used. Collecting data in near real-time allows emergency managers to assess utility damage in hours rather than days, which provides a critical improvement in disaster recovery.

Most mobile devices already use geocoding, allowing managers to determine where a mobile user was when they posted a particular tweet. The use of posts from social media creates the possibility of crowdsourced data collection, which could greatly increase the dataset available for constructing GIS models. The association of content with location provides can thus provide managers with greater situational awareness during a disaster by developing a bottom-up approach to GIS mapping, rather than a top-down approach.

Social Data

Social data such as age, ethnicity and income can help identify population groups that may be at particular risk or have special needs during a disaster. This knowledge helps emergency managers respond to utility damage for vulnerable groups more quickly. Managers can also derive GIS data from social media that will allow them to disseminate information on disasters in a top-down manner. Furthermore, researchers are looking for ways to use social data to improve real-time situational awareness of emergencies.


Cartography presents the biggest challenges in using GIS data. The mere fact that this data appears on a map doesn’t provide emergency managers with the knowledge of geospatial relationships needed to manage utilities in a disaster. Managers must also ask additional questions when viewing a map to determine what the information on it means. For example, a map with GIS data could show the location of shelters and their occupancy, but it wouldn’t tell the manager why some shelters were over-occupied and others weren’t.

Our Experience with Disaster Recovery

GIS data can be highly useful for disaster recovery and protecting utilities in the future. For example, SoftDig located existing utilities in the NYCHA Housing complex in Brooklyn, New York in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, allowing them to be repaired more quickly.

Contact SoftDig today to learn more about GIS and our utility locating services for disaster recovery. You can also call one of our offices in Pennsylvania, Maryland, San Antonio, or Houston.

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