This past August, torrential rains ripped through the American south. In some parts of Louisiana, two-plus feet...
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of rain in four days sent rivers to record levels. Inside the state's health department, Henry Yennie set about his job of identifying hospitals and other healthcare facilities in the path of the flood.
To make maps that helped identify the flooding dangers and potential evacuation needs, Yennie and his colleagues used the GeoSHAPE geographic information system (GIS) software with support from vendor Boundless Spatial Inc. The company provides commercial support for GIS efforts based on open source geospatial tools, such as GeoSHAPE, and also offers its own open source GIS platform.
"We were able to get flood maps from other state agencies and overlay those on our facility information through the Boundless GIS software," said Yennie, a program manager for emergency preparedness at the Louisiana Department of Health in Baton Rouge. "As a result, we could easily get a list of facilities at risk, as well as a measure of the level of risk."
With the water quickly rising, this was surely not a test. Yet, in a way, it was.
In search of GIS software
In 2005, the devastating Hurricane Katrina had shown Louisiana -- and the world -- how modern infrastructure could fail utterly. Since then, Yennie and his department have sought software that would enable better preparedness. Cost was a factor -- not just in terms of dollars, but also in the skills required to use the technology.
"After Katrina, and then again after Hurricane Gustav in 2008, we made numerous attempts to create a GIS system -- but it had to be one that we could afford," he said.
Yennie said his department was looking for something that didn't require users to become GIS software experts. More advanced software is in use within the department, "but it tends to be used by staff that are GIS specialists," he said.
What was needed was software that could be pushed out for planning at both the state and local level, he said. Here, the Boundless-supported GIS software, which Yennie's team implemented as a web service running in users' browsers, fit the bill.
Data layering made simpler
GeoSHAPE was designed primarily for use in humanitarian aid and disaster response efforts; its name is a shortened version of the phrase "Geospatial capabilities for Security, Humanitarian Assistance, Partner Engagement." Yennie said the open source GIS tool made layering geographic data easier than was the case with Tableau data visualization software, which is also used within the health department.
"Tableau makes pretty pictures, sure. But for iterating with the data, Boundless is dirt simple. That's important, because users just don't have the time to learn complex software," he said.
Efforts to make open source GIS tools easier to use are part of ongoing work at Boundless, according to Anthony Calamito, the New York company's chief evangelist and a longtime GIS analyst and engineer. While it is increasingly available, such software can have learning curves that discourage people who encounter geographic data as a part, but not the whole point, of their jobs.
This month, the vendor released Boundless Connect, a subscription service that includes access to curated open source data sets, tutorials and support. Boundless also expanded its software to include a GIS desktop with analytics tools and workflow orchestration, according to Calamito.
Ease-of-use moves seen as favorable
The moves were positive, according to Yennie. "It's a great idea -- it's in line with what we're seeing from other vendors and I'm excited to see how their desktop offering improves," he said.
Improvements are especially welcome, he said, because the incoming data and the types of functions and facilities his department needs to support will continue to grow.
Among the tasks the mapping software effort has taken up since Boundless was first used in the department is pinpointing grave disruptions caused by the flooding. Yennie said that, as is often the case in Louisiana floods, many cemeteries were affected this summer. Repatriating uprooted caskets has been a special effort in the wake of the August flooding.
"We have been working the map to see where caskets were found and to return them to the proper place," he said. "It isn't always obvious. But by looking at where they land, and the maps of the disrupted cemeteries, you can come up with a probable location for where they should go."
The ability to see data on a map is empowering for many people who otherwise struggle with statistical data, according to Yennie.
"Personally, I'm a numbers guy," he said. "But a lot of people aren't that way. With a map, you can communicate with people. A map gives them an idea of the scope of the problem, so they can come to understand the kind of response they have to put together. And the more data we see, the more we need to see that data on a map."
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