Applying Geoinformation to Disaster and Risk Management: Impact and Benefits


Major disasters cause massive disruption to societies and overburden national economic systems.Thousands of people are killed and displaced from their homes every year by natural disasters such as storms, floods, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. Many more lose their livelihoods and are affected by huge property damage. Windstorms and floods destroy vital resources, damage infrastructure and transportation, and jeopardize communications. Enduring periods of drought decrease crop yields, increase wildfire risks, and affect human health (Fig. 1).

However, these effects could be minimized and considerable losses of life and property could be avoided with better information about the risk and onset of disasters, improved risk assessment, early warning and disaster monitoring. Earth observation can help to provide this information. Technologies for processing, storing, analyzing and visualizing geospatial data have advanced greatly in the last years toward building national and global spatial data infrastructures (SDIs). These new developments can contribute to improved prediction and monitoring of hazards, risk reduction and emergency response.

Nevertheless, successful implementation of geospatial technologies requires a solid base of political support, legal and administrative regulations, and institutional responsibility and capacity. Therefore, knowledge transfer is needed from geo-science experts and international bodies to professionals and deciders in the field of disaster and risk management. Many international organizations are tackling this issue, among them the Joint Board of Geospatial Information Societies (JB GIS), and the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) which is carrying out the UN program, United Nations Platform for Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response (UN-SPIDER).

What can be done? Methods and best practices
To facilitate the process of getting familiar with geospatial technology, JB GIS and UNOOSA have embarked on a major initiative to demonstrate the potential of geospatial technologies for disaster and risk management to deciders in governmental and administrative bodies, to disaster management professionals and to other stakeholders.
As early as July 2009, JB GIS and UN-SPIDER jointly invited the global stakeholder community to contribute articles for a collection of case studies, application examples and best practices. They received and evaluated more than 70 responses, finally taking into account 16 of them, due to their exemplary coverage of different regions of the world, different types of disasters, and different phases of disaster management (Fig. 2).

The resulting booklet, entitled “Geoinformation for Disaster and Risk Management - Examples and Best Practices,” was officially launched during the Centenary Congress of the International Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ISPRS) in Vienna on July 2, 2010.

The booklet is available online and more information is available from the ISPRS website.  It convincingly demonstrates various aspects of geospatial technology and how that technology can be efficiently integrated into risk and disaster management.

What are the benefits?
The “Best Practices Booklet,” as it was unofficially termed, provides knowledge on “what can be done” – methods, systems, applications, experiences – to support disaster management with appropriate geoinformation. As a next logical step it seems useful to ask, “What is it worth?”

A follow-up publication on the evaluation of benefits would help to raise awareness in the political and programmatic environment and to set priorities in research and development. This is the goal of the ongoing project, VALID (The Value of Geo Information for Disaster and Risk Management).

The intention is to give evidence of the economic, humanitarian, operational and organizational benefit which can be realized by applying geoinformation to disaster management. The expected outcome is a differentiated, scientifically founded answer to the crucial question: “What is the difference you can make with geoinformation?”

The approach is two-fold in order to ensure a holistic view on the benefits of geoinformation for disaster management and best possible coverage of the disaster management cycle. In a socio-economic benefit analysis, the monetary aspects are addressed. In parallel, the “tacit” knowledge and practical experience of the global stakeholder community is explored by way of a Web-based survey (Fig. 3).

Socio-Economic Benefit Analysis.
In a classical cost-benefit analysis the costs of an investment are compared with the monetary value of societal and economic benefits they generate. While the costs of a given geoinformation product can be easily estimated by any provider, monetizing its societal benefit is more complicated and fuzzy. A comprehensive literature review provides a global overview on the economic losses and impacts caused by disasters. The available body of literature is to be scanned for evaluations and recommendations (e.g. regarding the potential of risk reduction and preparedness), resulting in a set of needs profiles, which would address aspects of organization, information and infrastructure. A comprehensive literature database has been set up. The ongoing analytical work is complemented by a dedicated case study on the Namibian flood in spring 2009. The expected outcome will highlight benefits as well as shortcomings and needs, and specify effects of physical, societal and organizational boundary conditions.

Web-based Survey
For a differentiated assessment of the specific assets of geoinformation done by expert stakeholders worldwide a two-step approach is being followed, in order to keep the participants’ efforts within reasonable limits.

First, a Web-based poll was carried out on the UN-SPIDER Knowledge Portal, where all stakeholders were given the opportunity to identify the 10 most important geodata products on a long list containing 51 items, such as hazard-specific risk maps, vulnerability maps, damage assessment maps, and monitoring systems. Selection of the long list items was based on content collected in the “Best Practices Booklet” and the Space Application Guides section on the UN-SPIDER Knowledge Portal. The poll was open for one month during the annual Gi4DM – Geo-information for Disaster Management – conference in Antalya, Turkey, and announced at a special side event there on May 4, 2011. In addition, the call for participation was also disseminated via E-mail distribution to several international organizations, such as the United Nations Geographical Information Working Group (UNGIWG), UN-SPIDER, and the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC). Participants numbering 222 from all the continents checked the long list for the 10 most important items, resulting in a total of 2,122 ticks (Fig. 4).  

The participants represented data providers, value adders and end users. In terms of disaster types addressed, the evaluators’ professional role had no major effect on the outcome (Fig. 5,6).

A reference set of 10 top-priority geoinformation products and systems has been identified (Table 1), highlighting the global community’s concern about flood, earthquake, drought, fire, and landslide hazards, as well as the importance of risk analysis and monitoring (Fig. 7).

Disaster Type




Flood Risk Monitoring System


Flood Risk Map


Damage Assessment Map


Inundation Map



Urban Classification for Risk Analysis


Damage Assessment Map



Vulnerability Map



Risk Map


Detection and Monitoring



Landslide Hazard Assessment


Table 1: Top 10 geoinformation items for disaster and risk management

As illustrated in Fig. 8, there is a marked step in the number of votes below these top-10 items, highlighting their priority from the stakeholders’ point of view.

This reference set is currently being described in technical detail in cooperation with leading geoscience associations  and will soon be disseminated to the global end-user community for a standardized benefit appraisal, with emphasis on impacts on operational as well as administrative and political issues, and on the criticality of specific product features. It will be an exciting exercise to finally compare the results of this differentiated user appraisal with the outcome of the socio-economic analysis.

The overall results of VALID are envisaged to be published as a booklet in summer 2013. The editors  are convinced that this publication will shed more light on the specific value and impact of geoinformation when it comes to tackling the increasing challenges of natural and man-made disaster risks.  

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Published Monday, September 24th, 2012

Written by UNOOSA Team

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