There's a Map for That

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UW Tacoma Assistant Professor Britta Ricker has teamed with the Tacoma Fire Department to create a disaster/fire preparedness app.

If you own a cell phone or a mobile device you’re likely creating data that could be mapped. “When you add a Yelp review or geotag a tweet you’re actually volunteering geographic information, you are mapping,” said UW Tacoma Assistant Professor Britta Ricker.

Most of us use maps to determine our location, to find out how to get from point A to point B. Ricker, who teaches in the university’s master of science in geospatial technologies program, sees maps in a larger context. “This is a skill you can apply to everything,” she said.

Traditionally, only the most highly trained professionals had access to the geographic information systems [GIS] needed to create most maps. The development of smart phones in the late 2000s opened up a world of opportunity. “A lot more people have access to things like GPS and can contribute geographic information using their smart phones,” said Ricker.

The democratization of mapping has major implications for citizen science. “For a long time geographers were constrained by how many researchers we could hire and how much land could be traversed,” said Ricker. “We now have a larger, more diverse group of people with smart phones who can contribute their local observations and data.”

Ricker’s interest in citizen science stems from her experience in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. “I was collecting high water marks for FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] and people wanted to talk to me, to tell me about their experience during the hurricane and that’s when I became interested in participatory mapping,” she said.

Putting a human face to data is part of Ricker’s mission. She is an investigator on a project funded by the United Kingdom Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. The project’s aim is to “develop an evidence-based approach for improving earthquake and fire preparedness information dissemination, through citizen science.”

One goal of the project is the development of a disaster/fire preparedness app that can be tailored to specific communities. “Generic preparedness apps from agencies like the Red Cross and FEMA are limited because they have a one-size-fits-all approach,” said Ricker.

Ricker has partnered with the Tacoma Fire Department to create a home preparedness app for the city. “People love talking about response, response is sexy but there is evidence to suggest that if you’re more prepared, you’re more likely to get back on track more quickly after a disaster,” said Ricker.

UW Tacoma Assistant Professor Britta Ricker and Tacoma Fire Chief Jim Duggan.

Tacoma Fire Chief Jim Duggan is working with Ricker on the app. He’s been with the fire department for more than 30 years. One consistent issue he sees is getting people to prepare for the worst-case scenario. “That’s where the app comes in,” he said. “This is a novel way to get people from knowing what they should do to doing it.”

Duggan and others within the fire department have been providing input on what they’d like to see in the app. They’re especially interested in knowing potential dangers in advance. “There are a lot of hazards that could be readily mapped by volunteers and having that information before we go out would be very helpful,” said Duggan.

Getting that type of information will require input from local residents. Ricker plans to hold a series of community mapping sessions where people can provide feedback on what they’d like to see in the app, and can provide on-the-ground information about existing conditions in their own homes and neighborhoods.  “The app is expert informed and community designed, meaning the experts (TFD) will provide guidance to the community on what to include while the community decides the order and drop down menu options, photos, and icons,” said Ricker.

The input provided will help determine the shape of the app. Ricker says the final product could be something akin to a home preparation checklist. Another possibility is detailed map of a neighborhood including the locations of stationary propane tanks and gas meters. This last part is something Chief Duggan thinks would be beneficial for fire fighters and home owners. “In an earthquake or fire it would be helpful to know where the valve is to shut off the gas,” he said. “We don't necessarily have that information before we arrive, and in an emergency, seconds count."

The end result that arguably most excites Ricker is not the app but the people and the process behind its creation. “As GIS professionals, we have a unique skillset to help facilitate this process of citizen science,” she said. “When you ask an individual to enter data into a map their knowledge is documented and we get richer information into the map that could be potentially life-saving.”

Written by: 
Eric Wilson-Edge / July 7, 2017
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or