GIS, mobile-alert tech shine during eclipse
- By Stephanie Kanowitz
- Aug 24, 2017
Cities, counties and states along the path of totality during the historic Aug. 21 eclipse turned to data to ensure that the millions of people who followed that track stayed safe and got great views.
Specifically, governments used GIS and messaging systems to alert area residents and tourists to traffic congestion, road closures and lodging information and notify first responders of needs for emergency response.
We asked officials in Larimer County, Colo.; Salem, Ore.; and Casper, Wyo., for a debriefing on their approaches, and common themes emerged. One, they all reported no problems with handling the increased load they experienced as their populations temporarily swelled. Two, they all used existing technology to create their alerting systems, which kept costs low, if not nil. Three, alert options emerged as a star in the rare moment of darkness that occurred as the moon blocked out the sun.
Here’s a closer look at each approach.
Larimer County, Colo.
When traffic began piling up along the state line between Colorado and Wyoming in Larimer County as drivers stopped to take photographs, officials at the regional emergency operations center acted quickly. They had staged Colorado Department of Transportation trucks, tow trucks and first responders in the area, and they messaged workers in the field to put up cones to block people from pulling over and creating delays.
Other drivers, frustrated by traffic, crossed medians onto dirt roads and kicked up dust that affected visibility. Officials sent an alert to mobilize water trucks, which sprayed the roads to prevent the dust.
“It worked well,” Kimberly Culp, executive director of the Larimer Emergency Telephone Authority, said of the Everbridge emergency communications system the county used. A customer of the company since 2008, the county didn’t have to add any new technology. Rather, it had only to create a keyword, which took minutes, Culp said.
The 10,222 Larimer County residents and visitors who texted “ECLIPSE” to 888777 received the 12 text alerts the EOC sent out between Aug. 14 and 22. Internal users received nine. The heaviest usage time was on the day of the eclipse, Culp said.
The county offers opt-in alerts for more everyday messages, but “we don’t have anywhere close to 10,000 people participating in our other alerts,” Culp said. “We’re hoping that this eclipse event got some folks’ attention and will be more willing to opt into our general keyword, which is LETA, for alerts in our county.”
“Everything went so smooth that there were no stories to write,” said Kenny Larson, communications and community engagement manager for Salem.
By “everything,” he’s referring to the internal and external GIS-based applications the city put in place for the eclipse, such as a map of eclipse viewing spots, pointing people to city parks where they could camp overnight, and a map with road conditions such as closures and alerts. The latter received more than 17,000 views within a few hours, Larson said.
“When we did stand up the public apps -- and I believe it was the Friday before -- the response on those, it was overwhelming,” said Susan Blohm, enterprise services manager for the City of Salem Information Technology Department. “We don’t have any public apps that have had that many views.”
Planning for the eclipse started last year, and the city assembled an Eclipse Data Team composed of GIS professionals and some non-GIS workers who could enter the information into a GIS hub so that officials could view it in a dashboard, said Dan Brown, GIS technical lead for the city.
Salem used its Situation Awareness Framework for Events, a common operational picture tool that it’s had for about seven years. Much of it is built on Esri ArcGIS, so officials opted to use ArcGIS Online as a component to track and manage all the data that was coming in for the eclipse, including information from traffic sensors, crowdsourcing, city park status reports, and hotel and motel occupation.
Salem stood up several ArcGIS operations platforms -- one for the Public Works Department, one for the police department, and one for monitoring events, traffic and the parks. “The system was used by our Public Works Department Operations Center and our police department and our fire department,” Brown said.
The city also used ArcGIS Story Maps to build focused views in tabs so that the Public Works or first responder staff could click on, for example, the traffic tab to see only what’s happening with roadway congestion, he added.
Larson credited the city’s success to its outreach to the general public, which “empowered them with information that they needed to make decisions…. Had that information not been available -- whether it was GIS or public-safety or anything else that we were putting out -- we could have very easily had a different result."
The project’s success at keeping emergencies at bay put GIS on, well, the map, making officials hopeful for its use in future applications.
“This event, I think, has helped the city understand more about GIS, to understand that it’s more than a map,” Blohm said. “It’s something that can be used for day-to-day operations. I think that this unique event with the eclipse helped us expose the capabilities and the access that people have here in the city, and I think that will help us move the technology forward.”
When Casper's Regional GIS Administrator Denyse Wyskup, officials from surrounding Natrona County and supporting communities began planning two years ago for the eclipse, they intended to use GIS to communicate operational and public-safety information among themselves. They found they could create a public-facing resource, too.
“We were cultivating all of this information regarding tourism event locations, duration of events, accommodation areas, what type of accommodations, the capacity of the accommodations," Wyskup said. "The information that is very relevant for public safety and services when it’s filtered … would be very appropriate as a public communications tool,” she said.
The city added a “Wyoming Eclipse Festival” layer to its existing ArcGIS-based online mapping portal, GeoSMART, which has internal and external interfaces, to provide map-based information on traffic problems, eclipse events and viewing sites, camping locations, local parks and trails as well as first-aid stations. One example of data that was used both internally and externally was real-time medical facility volume and patient traffic updates. Workers at eight clinics and hospitals would log into its web app view, select their facility and transmit the data, which populated GeoSMART and enabled first responders to quickly find the best place to send people in need of care. A filter made this information public, too.
Traffic to GeoSMART, which has been live for two years, increased 200 percent during the eclipse, said Wyskup, adding that she was glad to learn the city could handle that spike.
Information on assessor data, property records and utilities is always available on GeoSMART, and Wyskup said she hopes that this exposure will bring more users. “What I’m hoping, especially for these local citizens, is that they’ll say, ‘Oh, wow! I never realized I had so much up-to-date data for my area available here.’”
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.