By: Matthew Schorr
Given the frequency and severity of natural disasters around the world in recent years, as well as the earthquake and associated tsunami that occurred in Japan in March 2011, the urgency for better disaster management is clear. In addition, scientists believe that the changing climate, rising sea levels, and expanding vulnerable populations threaten even worse years ahead (Bohannon, 2005, p. 1883). Virtual globes enable a broad range of users, such as geospatial professionals, first responders, humanitarian relief agencies, and ordinary individuals, to easily examine disasters in ways that were not possible before.
The most popular virtual globe, Google Earth, provides a powerful visualization tool that makes it possible for users to gain a deeper understanding of the geospatial, temporal, and social dimensions of a disaster, before, during, and after it occurs. Google Earth is a good visualization tool because it is easy to use, interactive, and generates high-resolution images that are accessible by a wide audience over the Internet (Tomaszewski, 2011). An important reason for Google Earth’s appeal is the ease with which it lets users lay multiple data layers on top of background imagery, enabling users to easily access information from varied sources. The ability to lay data over Google Earth’s geospatial imagery aids in predicting and preparing for natural disasters (Smith and Lakshmanan, 2011), and in post-disaster response (Spring, 2007). In addition, Google Earth allows varied users to collaborate and combine their data on one interface, thereby broadening the information framework available for disaster management. This collaborative ability enables users to accomplish more at all stages of disaster management than could be accomplished by an individual group of users (Elvidge & Tuttle, 2008).
Despite the excitement surrounding Google Earth’s use in disaster management, there are several hurdles that must be overcome if it is to be truly useful in disaster prevention (the preparation for, and mitigation of, potential or impending natural disasters) and response. Among those hurdles are 1) technical obstacles, especially in developing countries, 2) security concerns, 3) ensuring accuracy and standardization of image format, and 4) economic barriers. Perhaps the greatest hurdles to Google Earth’s use in disaster management are the technical barriers that impede its use in the developing world.
One of these technical barriers is the absence of widespread and effective Internet in developing countries (Nourbakhsh et al., 2006). Inasmuch as developing countries assume a disproportionate share of the risk of disasters (UN, 2009), expanding and improving the Internet in undeveloped countries is a necessity. With improved Internet, greater collaboration among relief workers on the ground, local residents with first-hand knowledge of land conditions and risk-prone areas, and users in other locations would be possible. Such improved collaborative activity would result in better disaster warnings, as well as more effective relief efforts.
Despite the humanitarian benefits of expanding Google Earth’s use in undeveloped countries, the expansion of the Internet within these countries is an ambitious goal. Realistically, the Internet will probably not expand solely to meet the needs of disaster management. Therefore, those involved in disaster management should consider ways to increase Google Earth’s utility in areas with limited Internet, such as utilizing Google Earth’s offline capabilities. The most significant limitation to the offline mode is that its imagery would quickly become outdated, since it cannot be updated. However, although current imagery is preferable, recent images are better than none at all.
Google Earth plays an exciting role in disaster management. It offers a powerful visualization medium that can easily be accessed by multiple users in varied locations, in order to make more informed decisions relating to effective disaster prevention and response. If the hurdles to its application are addressed, particularly the obstacles to its use in the developing world, disaster management will be improved even further.
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