Concluding Comments: Looking to the Future
While the emphasis throughout the committee’s study and this report has been on geospatial data and tools, it is not surprising that there are similarities in many of its recommendations to the conclusions reached by a parallel and recently published study of information technology (IT) in disaster management, conducted by the National Research Council’s Computer Science and Telecommunications Board (NRC, 2005). Writing about interoperability in communications during emergency response, that report concluded (NRC, 2005, p. 2):
Most communications interoperability issues are not technical. Better human organization, willingness to cooperate, and a willingness of governments at higher levels to listen to those at local levels who really do the work and who are the actual responders are all critical factors in making better use of information technology for disaster management.
On the issue of training, the report concluded (NRC, 2005, p. 4):
To be useful in a disaster, IT must be in routine use. In a crisis situation, people tend to fall back on what they are familiar with. Technology that is not included in planning, training, exercises, and standard operating procedures will not be used in an actual disaster.
The committee also recognized these issues, which were raised many times by participants in its meetings and workshop, and they underlie several of its recommendations, including those regarding the need for increased training and more effective exercises, for technology that is better adapted to the special circumstances of emergency management, and
for more effective sharing of data within the framework of the National Spatial Data Infrastructure. In short, most of the problems associated with the use of geospatial data and tools are institutional and not technical, and the use of geospatial data and tools must be habitual rather than exceptional.
Geospatial data and tools have evolved over the past four decades into an extremely powerful and effective application of digital technology, and they are now widely deployed in many areas of human activity. However, emergency management provides a very different context for their application. First and foremost, its demands occur under enormous pressure of time—rather than weeks or months, data must be acquired and analyzed within minutes. Second, the users who rely on the products of geospatial tools are often poorly trained in their use and working under very difficult circumstances. Little room exists for error and little admiration for complex technologies that fail under pressure.
The central message of this report is that geospatial data and tools are useful and indeed essential in all phases of emergency management. Yet it is never easy to persuade authorities or the general public of the need for investment in information infrastructure when the primary concerns in the immediate aftermath of an event are clearly focused on food, shelter, and the saving of lives. The fact that information is essential to effective response—that “it all starts with a map”—is easily forgotten. The need for geospatial data and tools may be everywhere, but in a sense it is also nowhere in minds that are overwhelmed by the circumstances of a disaster.
The answer to this fundamental dilemma is clear, and the chapters and recommendations of this report will hopefully give it the exposure that it needs. Society must plan in advance for disasters and cannot afford to wait until the next one happens, as it inevitably will. Investment in infrastructure is an important part of preparedness, and the kind of infrastructure represented by geospatial data and tools is a very important part of that investment. The committee hopes that the experience of recent disasters, when emergency management agencies were so clearly overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the event, along with increasing awareness among the general public and decision makers of the potential usefulness of geospatial data and tools, will help to drive home the report’s central message.
Another event of the magnitude of Hurricane Katrina will occur at some point in the future, and the hypothetical events described in Chapter 2 will almost certainly become real. When they do, and if the problems identified in this report and evident in the response to Hurricane Katrina are not addressed, similar patterns of breakdown will undoubtedly occur. However, with the kinds of preparedness outlined in this report, the
events will occur in a very different world from that of 2005. Agencies will have planned the immediate and coordinated acquisition of data, using arrangements that are already in place and relying on technologies that are fully interoperable. Teams of geospatial professionals will be activated immediately, even prior to events if accurate warning exists, and will be on-site and operational within hours. Emergency response personnel will have practiced the use of geospatial data and tools under a range of scenarios and will be fully familiar with the kinds of problems they will encounter. Response will be better targeted and managed, and additional lives may be saved. The way to achieve this vision of preparedness is clear; society has only itself to blame if it is not realized.