GeoQ Lets the Whole World Lend a Hand at Disaster Sites

March 2016
Topics: Emergency Management, Disasters, Geographic Information Systems, Emergency Preparedness and Response, Collaborative Decision Making, Software (General)
To help the government support disaster relief efforts, MITRE developed GeoQ, a tool that allows organizations to rapidly assess the damage left behind by natural disasters and share this information with first responders in the field.
MITRE employees demonstrate the GeoQ tool.

In April of 2015, a 7.8-magnitude quake hit Nepal. The quake flattened 90 percent of the houses in affected areas and triggered landslides that cut off villages around the epicenter. The following August, super typhoon Soudelor smashed into Saipan, Taiwan, and portions of eastern China. With sustained winds of 180 mph, the storm left behind wrecked homes, uprooted trees, and impassable roads.

Relief agencies responding to each of these disasters used a tool called GeoQ to assess the damage. Developed by MITRE for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, GeoQ is a web-based tool that fuses together data about a disaster site, including maps, imagery, news videos, and even social media from citizens at the scene.  Its built-in workflow process then allows trained experts to quickly analyze the area, annotate the impacted regions, and export this information to emergency personnel.

"GeoQ allows first responders to pull in expertise and data from analysts across the world to quickly assess the local impact of a catastrophe," says Stephen Jones, GeoQ's lead software engineer.

"It provides crowdsourced situational awareness tailored for disaster response," sums up Jay Crossler, GeoQ’s chief engineer.

Responding to Disasters with Data

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency supplies government agencies with geospatial information. One of the NGA's missions is to provide disaster assistance to first responders and relief organizations. In an effort to efficiently and affordably develop the best technology for providing such assistance, the NGA asked MITRE researchers to develop a system for building quick prototypes of promising applications. GeoQ emerged as one of the stars of the process.

Crossler offers an example of how GeoQ would work in the field. "A hurricane is heading our way. There's going to be a lot of damage and evacuations. So we ready GeoQ. We upload satellite imagery of the affected area. We feed in social media, such as Instagram photos and YouTube videos. We fill GeoQ with as much data as we can. Then first responders at the scene can pull up that data on their iPads. They don’t need to have specialized software to access GeoQ."

Eyes Around the World

But GeoQ is not just for those at ground zero. People thousands of miles away from the destruction can offer their assistance through the system. "Every user has access to the data; they can see everything that's going on," Crossler says. "This lets them add to the relief efforts.

"Say we have 100 emergency response volunteers online. We can break satellite imagery of the disaster area into 100 squares and assign each user a square. Their job is to zoom in on a square and analyze it. Is there flooding? Draw the flood boundaries on the map. Is that a damaged house? Place a marker on it and note if the damage level is one, two, three, or four. Is that bridge out? Is that gas station in flames? Place markers, draw pictures. Soon you’ve got a real, living, breathing picture of what’s happening on the ground, provided by people who may be half the world away."

Of course, the more expertise users have in performing such tasks, the more useful they are to relief efforts. Crossler and Jones are designing a system to quickly identify those users with the needed skills for a mission. "We want to institute a system of badging," Jones says. "If an analyst has been trained in structural damage assessment, he or she can present credentials to earn the corresponding badge. When a relief effort requires damage assessment, organizers can add users with the proper badge to the project. We want to build a community in which a trained analyst is available to help out in any given situation."

GeoQ for You and You

Crossler and Jones stress that MITRE's job as GeoQ's developer is not to lead this community but to provide it with the tools it needs. "We’re not running a worldwide disaster response service," Crossler says. "We’re building a software system with which anyone can host a service to collect and crowdsource situational awareness."

And when Crossler says "anyone," he means it. "Any institution with a need for situational awareness can set up their own server with GeoQ. A college could set up a server with a view of the campus on which students could report a street lamp that went out or a Wi-Fi hot spot that's bad or a fender bender in the parking lot." To encourage the use of GeoQ, NGA has made its code available as open source software through NGA’s GitHub account.

From Nepal to the Oval Office

The NGA used GeoQ in its relief efforts after the Nepal earthquake. "Analysts in Nepal that used GeoQ were able to collect more information much faster and at a higher level of quality than they could with their existing tools," Crossler says. "And they were able to share that information with other agencies more quickly."

GeoQ's effectiveness in supporting the mission earned Crossler an invitation to the White House. The occasion was President Obama’s Innovation for Disaster Response and Recovery Initiative Demo-Day. Crossler was one of the technologists, entrepreneurs, and members of the disaster response community invited to showcase tools for helping communities respond to and recover from large-scale emergencies.

"Relief organizations like to say that every emergency is a local event," says Jones. Even with the help of state, national, and international agencies, relief efforts in the end come down to neighbor helping neighbor. But with GeoQ, everyone in the world can be our neighbor in a time of need.

—by Christopher Lockheardt

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