GIS and Social Media Team to Combat Disasters

Two of the world’s top technologies are consistently pairing up in what many believe is the evolution of information. Software companies are integrating geographic information systems (GIS) technology and social media to map people’s tweets and other social media platforms with geospatial data. GIS paired with social media has been used in every major disaster over the past two years. Lee Mitchell, owner of G.A.I.A. Professionals, a successful GIS technology firm, lived on the waterfront line of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster. “While the NOAA map helped me monitor the spill and official response, the social maps were by far the most helpful because that is where I could find people with experiences like mine that weren’t nearly being addressed through any official means,” says Mitchell. Mitchell says the feelings of confusion and powerlessness can be nearly overwhelming in a disaster situation and the ability to connect with others and share experiences so that you don’t feel so alone is very important. “I found social media maps to be a great help in making those connections in times of disaster,” adds Mitchell.

Here are a few other examples of how GIS and social media are playing an important role to connect people in times of disaster:


During the 2010Haitiearthquake that registered 7.0 on the Richter scale at least 52 aftershocks measuring 4.5 or greater, an estimated three million people were affected and some 316,000 died. But, without GIS technology, experts believe the disaster could have been worse. In a Esri conference video ( about Haiti, Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), says that in big disasters the initial response is generally not the government, it is individuals helping each other, trying to find out what is going on. In this age of social media, people can share information in real time. To capture this, Esri’s data and services included a 25-meter reference grid of Haiti, an Esri Geo Viewer, and Haiti base map data from the United Nations available at ArcGIS Online. Esri-generated earthquake and recovery maps were available for both the media and public. “Our job is to help where we can empower our users with better GIS support,” says Russ Johnson, director of public safety solutions for Esri, in a press release. “As soon as we learned of the terrible event inHaiti, we activated our emergency operational procedures to assist emergency services, humanitarian relief, health professionals, NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], and others. These organizations are working extremely hard to make a difference. We’re working to assist their efforts.”


The 2011 earthquake off the Pacific coast of Tohokuregistered a 9.0 on the Richter scale and killed more than 15,000 people. As outlined in this American Sentinel University blog post, ‘GIS Technology Critical to Managing Japan Disaster,’ (available at GIS technology helped find victims of the Japan Earthquake. Google People Finder used GIS to help individuals track down loved ones. The East Honshu Island, Japan, Military Grid Reference System provided a seamless plane coordinate system across jurisdictional boundaries and map scales with GIS technology. ArcGIS was used to facilitate precise position referencing with GPS, produce web-based map portals that enabled a practical system of geoaddresses and a universal map index. Maps were created based on street views and satellite imagery with links to tweets, YouTube videos and Flickr photos from the area.

Hurricane Irene

Hurricane Irene zipped across the Atlantic Oceanand ravaged the East Coast last August. Some 50 people died and more than $10 billion in damages were inflicted. Considering this hurricane hit highly populated areas, the damages and fatalities could have been much worse. According to, the average citizen had a wealth of accurate (and useful) hurricane information to choose from, including Twitter/Flickr/YouTube overlays on Google Earth. Popular blogger TheGISDoctor said, “Geographers andGISpros are all over this storm. Unlike the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, which had a ton of reactionary GIS development, hurricanes provide the opportunity to develop datasets, applications, and analysis before the storm arrives. There are a number of great applications and datasets that have been generated in the past four days, with many more to come over the next several days.” Significant real-time maps included The New York Times hurricane tracker, MSNBC hurricane tracker, Esri and CNN. And after the hurricane, GIS played another important role to help insurers accurately pay claims.

Esri’s Mark McCoy notes in an interview that ArcGIS plays a crucial role after a disastrous event and insurers can use this information to make certain their customers are as safe as possible and that they carry the appropriate coverage for any catastrophe that might affect that location. ArcGIS also helps insurers accurately rate the risk to ensure they are collecting appropriate premiums for the losses that are likely to be incurred. GIS technology can transform society through better decision-making using a geographic perspective and has become an essential tool for natural disaster research to predict damage as well as assessing post-disaster damage. Effective natural disaster planning programs can help save lives and reduce the level of damage that occurs during catastrophic natural events.