Snow in your forecast? Here's how GIS will help ease the pain

Predictive analytics are helping governments and businesses prepare

The eastern U.S. is no stranger to brutal winter storms such as the one expected to pummel the region this weekend, but coping with such weather is a far cry today from what it once was.

Not only has weather prediction evolved considerably over the years, giving affected areas more advance warning, but predictive analytics and other advances in geographic information systems (GIS) are helping governments, communities and businesses prepare to respond in real-time as needs arise.

"In the case of an impending snowstorm, what the technology provides is a real-time view of the jurisdictional areas affected -- whether state, city or community -- and the ability to drill down into the highest fidelity you need," said Russ Johnson, director of Public Safety and Homeland Security for Esri, which makes the ArcGIS mapping platform.

How high are the curbs on a given street, for example, and where are electrical switches located? Within an office building, where are the desks? Today's GIS technology offers detail on that level, helping users respond better by deciding ahead of time the best place to stage sand trucks, where to haul snow once streets are plowed, or how best to help people in trouble.

"We're constantly publishing Web maps that illustrate what's happening and what could happen," Johnson said. "People can share information and put together maps quickly that connect with almost any kind of data -- it's real-time GIS."

There are countless maps, images and live data feeds available, and crowdsourced data plays an increasingly important role: "Everybody's a sensor," he said.

Esri's Severe Weather Public Information Map, for instance, is a part of its Disaster Response Program that taps publicly generated location information from Flickr, Twitter, YouTube and elsewhere for up-to-the-minute insight on what's happening.

"The public is telling us what's happening, and the GIS will ingest that data for a virtual, real-time picture of the actual impacts of the snow," said Johnson, whose professional background includes many years in fire and emergency operations. "I would have killed to have this level of information years ago."

Esri claims more than 350,000 customers, and they include not just federal, state and local government agencies but also utilities and big companies like FedEx, UPS, Walmart, Starbucks and Walgreens. Many subscribe to Esri's ArcGIS cloud service but also bring in their own geographic data, Johnson said.

For businesses, the focus is typically on continuity and the safety of personnel.

"Whether people realize it or not, there's a geo component to almost everything," Johnson said. "All businesses should have a continuity plan and understand the vulnerabilities they're geographically exposed to."

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