DGI 2021

01 - 03 February, 2021

Intercontinental London – The O2

44 (0) 207 368 9836

Geospatial Intelligence – A Game Changer for Disaster Preparedness and Response

A Timeline of Events

2016: Cholera outbreak starts in Yemen, adding to humanitarian crisis

2017: Hurricane Harvey caused damage estimated at around $125bn in Texas

2018: Sulawesi earthquake and tsunami kill 4,300

2019: Record heatwaves in June and July caused the deaths of 1,435 people in France this year


Disaster Risk Management (DRM), responding to, recovering from and preparing for a disaster, is first and foremost a State responsibility. Government geospatial capabilities therefore play a major role, from the geodetic networks that help predict, warn and measure earthquakes through to maintaining fundamental geospatial data sets. In DRM there is an undoubted correlation between the state of available geospatial information and informed decision-making.

This article looks at three of many opportunities for the geospatial community to enable better decision making in DRM, saving lives and money.

Remote Sensing

Developments in remote sensing are proving a step-change to DRM.

High Altitude Pseudo Satellites and the multitude of micro-sats now give opportunity for sensor-dependent persistent coverage. Hand-held drones can provide local situational understanding in the immediate aftermath. China is establishing a network of UAVs across the nation to reach any disaster location within 4 hours. The UK Space Agency is working with Pacific islands nations, integrating meteorological and geospatial data for better climate-resilience decisions.

Amongst the worst recent natural disasters in Europe, the 1908 Messina earthquake and tsunami claimed 100,000 lives in Calabria and Sicily. Understanding tsunami disaster risks, though, will become a little easier thanks to remote sensing. NASA’s IceSat 2, with its 500kg LIDAR sensor, can detect the shape of the seabed as deep as 40 metres, allowing better tsunami impact modelling. Land elevation data is also vital in understanding landslide and liquification risks, both major killers during the 2018 Sulawesi disaster. However, remote sensing data has limited value on its own.

Associated developments in rapid environmental assessment applications using change detection and feature extraction, and most importantly subsequent wider data integration, are providing opportunity to gain real benefit from remotely sensed data, whatever its source.


Preparation encompasses mitigation, planning, communicating, rehearsal and early warning. Geospatial is increasingly vital to all.

First and foremost, nations need to maintain and make accessible fundamental geospatial data, including on an international basis at a time of disaster. There is global consensus that all 14 United Nations Fundamental Geospatial Data Themes have relevance to DRM, from geodetic networks to land ownership, transport networks to population distribution. A key lesson reported by Indonesia after the 2018 earthquake stresses the inclusion of disaster hazards into national and local spatial planning. As within the UK National Hazards Partnership, responsible agencies should work together to ensure common understanding of the key data requirements for DRM.

Geospatial integration and analysis are essential, and early warning can saves lives. For example, the UK’s Department for International Development and others spatially integrated rain prediction, seasonal temperature, population density and clean water access data to predict Cholera outbreaks in Yemen, allowing aid agencies to prepare up to 4 weeks in advance. There are many more such opportunities yet to surface.

Disaster zones are like warzones. Routine power supply and communications may fail, movement might be prevented, and information can be confused, overloaded and partial. Building and sharing a common operational picture is a vital early step to common understanding and unified decision making, especially given the range of local, national and international responses. Rapid deployment of geospatial expertise, systems and data on the ground close to responding decision-makers at all levels to provide critical decision-support is equally beneficial.

This all requires preparation, discovery of trusted sources, data integration and practicing evidence-based decision-making. Given decision-support expertise in geospatial intelligence organisations such as NGA, NCGI, and 42 Engineer Regiment (Geographic), there is also a clear argument for Defence to be involved in preparation, not just be a ‘last resort’ in disaster response.


Recovery covers a wide range of processes, but let’s look at one lesser discussed challenge and opportunity: compensation. Getting immediate relief to those most effected is a response activity, but recovery requires much more substantial payments. Whether insurance or government funded, fair valuation, prioritisation and fraud will all be issues. A geospatial approach pays dividends, particularly integrating land parcels, land ownership and business/crop data along with disaster damage data, increasingly from remote sensing. And as AI features in disaster response, social media and other sources can also be considered and insurance companies and governments predict financial consequences more accurately and earlier.


Where will disaster strike next? Are we ready? With climate change we witness an increasing human and financial cost from disasters at a time that geospatial capabilities offer more benefit to DRM. In some nations, DRM is becoming the driver for partial national spatial data infrastructures; no minister wants her department to be accused of failing to prepare. UK’s Civil Contingency Secretariat’s Resilience Direct, featured previously at DGI, is the UK spatial ‘common operating picture’ tool.

Disaster preparedness and response are a powerful use case to demonstrate the power of geospatial to governments at all levels. Making use of our existing cross-Government and international partnerships, every opportunity to promote this should be taken.

John Kedar will be chairing at DGI 2020. Download the agenda for more details.