Global Precipitation Measurement of Florence

USDA geotargets the press

As Hurricane Florence headed toward the east coast in mid-September, the Department of Agriculture was using a new tool to better disseminate public health and safety information by geotargeting the most appropriate press outlets.

The new tool, which is yet to be named, powered by USDA's ArcGIS Online platform, and allows the agency to quickly identify media organizations that fall within a particular geographic area, like the path or a hurricane.

“You’ll be then distributing the information to the people who most need it,” said Dirk Fillpot, a Communications Coordinator at USDA. "[T]hat kind of just-in-time information can be incredibly powerful and helpful."

The agency's old method for contacting media organizations entailed sending out messages to every outlet in an affected state, or going through by hand to find the cities with relevant outlets.

“As you can imagine, that’s incredibly time consuming and not very efficient,” Fillpot said.

The new tool, which USDA has been using since May, allows the agency to simply place the path of the hurricane into ArcGIS as a layer. USDA officials can select the path and search their database of media organizations that fall into that geographic area. This generates a list of email addresses that can then be copied and placed into a message.

“To me, it’s a lot more intuitive,” Fillpot said.

This isn’t a tool just for hurricanes, either. It can be used for amber alerts, earthquakes, biohazard events or any other situation where the area of interest can be traced on a map. Fillpot expects the tool to bring the public affairs and GIS teams closer together at USDA, and suggested it could lead to new communications strategies.

“I think this is going to help public affairs officers, as they go about the process of beginning to use this tool, they’ll be able to interact with the GIS people who are in their agencies and better learn how their agencies use GIS,” he said.

Fillpot is now working to make other agencies and even states aware of the tool. Any government organization with an ArcGIS Online account can access USDA’s database of media organizations to geo-target its own public affairs efforts.

“Every agency or department will be able to tailor the use of the system to their missions,” Fillpot said.

About the Author

Matt Leonard is a former reporter for GCN.

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