Our geographic information system (GIS) allows organizations and individuals to coordinate recovery efforts and resources like never before. Learn what it is, why and how we made it, and what it means for the future of disaster relief from two of the minds behind the project.
We interviewed Garrett Wates, part of Auburn University’s Master of Community Planning disaster mapping team, and Kermit Farmer, Chief Ethos Officer of Village Creed. After seeing how communities struggled to coordinate and allocate volunteers, recovery resources, and information after natural disasters, Kermit Farmer was inspired to create a better system for disaster outreach.
Q. What is GIS?
Garrett Wates: GIS stands for geographic information system. Like the name implies, it is a process for getting information onto a geographic location—essentially, creating maps that someone could point to a location and get some type of information from that area. It is a really practical software because things in the real world happen over space. This makes analyzing and communicating information two big applications of the technology.
Q. What led you to create the tornado disaster maps using the GIS software?
Garrett Wates: For the past year, I worked as a research assistant in the Community Planning Department under Dr. Jay Mittal. When the tornados came through in March, it gave our program the opportunity to gather some information about the total damage to the area that would hopefully be helpful in pinpointing areas that took the worst damage and give us a baseline of information as we continue to watch recovery efforts to see how a natural disaster like this one can affect communities in the long run. GIS was used because it is able to create spatial representations of information, which was useful in this situation because a natural disaster affects a physical area, so damage numbers can be tied to a map.
Q. What kind of data did you pull together to create the Lee County Tornado disaster maps?
Garrett Wates: Quite a few different types of information were used to build the maps for the area affected by the tornado. The city of Auburn helped us out a lot by providing building footprints and parcel data for Lee County. They also helped provide aerial imagery of the area from a few days after the storm hit. This was incredibly helpful because I was able to go back and compare building footprints and past aerial images to the images right after the storms to make an inventory of affected properties. Other data used was census information, for population and housing numbers, and tax information from the Lee County assessor’s office to get property values in the affected area.
Q. Tell me more about you and your AU Community Development profession and degree.
Garrett Wates: I just finished my first year in the Master of Community Planning program at Auburn University. I completed my undergraduate degree at Auburn in the Biosystems Engineering program. I saw Community Planning as a way to take some of the environmental issues I cared about and apply them to the way we design and organize cities. Community Planning is complex and incredibly interdisciplinary and getting to see how the fields of hard science, like seeing how pollution affects water systems, and social sciences, like how access to clean water contributes to not only the physical health of communities but the social health of communities, is really amazing and important to think about. Community Planning, in short, is trying to organize and plan for the system that creates the best social, economic, and environmental health for a community.
Q. What inspired you to add this feature to Village Creed?
Kermit Farmer: We added it because communities need to see the whole picture of disaster recovery. We have been working on this for quite some time. Even before adding the tornado path GIS map, events, services, and volunteer opportunities on our website have been clickable with location pins. Now, everybody can see the problems—seen in the tornado-path details— and the solutions—all available resources— on the same map at the same time. All of this is cloud-based, so new information and developments are updated in real time. We knew the power of this, but we didn’t have the resources to make it in-house which is why we got the AU Community Planning program to assist.
Q. How is this a game changer for individuals and organizations looking to serve in disaster relief?
It allows us solve problems like never before. Think about it— what discoveries can we make individually and collectively by seeing the problems and the solutions at the same time? This is new and very long overdue for social services. I'm sure you've seen a movie with a group of leaders standing around a big table looking at the problems while forming a strategy with the given resources. We can create better solutions for disaster recovery if everyone involved understands both sides of the equation. This is going to create new conversations and strategies that we all desperately need.
Interested in learning more about GIS Mapping?