Using the Web in Earthquake Recovery

This is a copy of a guest post I wrote for the Government Web Toolkit Blog. It describes some of the experiences gained and lessons learned in using the web to deliver interactive maps to the public following the 2011 Canterbury earthquake, based my time at the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) to from April 2011 to September 2012.

A picture can paint a thousand words. In an earthquake recovery, interactive maps are worth a million.

February 22nd 2011, 12:51pm, I’m working from home, lying on my bed, reading email on my iPhone. 30 seconds later, my city, my life, and my future had changed irrevocably. Anything not bolted down was on the floor and half of it was smashed. Computer monitors, TVs, bookshelves, food from the fridge. The power went off then stayed off for five days.

Mobile calls worked for a few minutes, then failed. Texts became patchy after an hour. The only thing that was semi-reliable was Twitter over 3G. It took until 9pm that night for me to know that my 10 year old son was OK as he was at school in the central city and he didn’t get home until then.

Within three hours of the quake a group of volunteers had set up http://eq.org.nz, a crowdsourced effort using an open source disaster response platform to provide maps and information. Within a day http://canterburyearthquake.org.nz/ was set up (on WordPress.com) by the official Civil Defence response team, Environment Canterbury, and Christchurch City Council staff. The technologies that worked were web, cloud and mobile based. These teams delivered in a rapidly responsive and agile way to get information to people on the ground.

Disaster responses and recoveries are about people and things at places. They’re inherently geospatial in nature. Maps make a huge difference. Interactive, dynamically updated maps even more so.

Serving the Public

Fast forward to 23rd June 2011. Less than three months after being established, the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) had completed the initial process of land zoning based on detailed geotechnical investigations. Like everything in the recovery, time frames were tight. People want government decisions to be based on sound scientific and economic evidence. They also want to know where they stand (and can live), as soon as possible.

CERA needed a way to let people see exactly which zone their house was in. That required an interactive website, capable of taking a massive initial load, which would be implemented in a very short time frame.

In stepped Trade Me.

Working with Tonkin & Taylor, the engineering firm that had done the geotechnical investigations and created the zoning maps, Trade Me built Landcheck in four days. They served the site from their server farms in Auckland and Wellington. There were 5 million page views, and 3.3 million individual property searches in the first 24 hours of the site being live. Trade Me did this for free, for the people of greater Christchurch.

By September 2011, CERA had taken over the hosting of Landcheck following three further land zoning announcements that generated about 10% of the initial load. The functionality was migrated to the My Property tab on the CERA website (in Drupal) hosted by Egressive (now Catalyst IT). Interactive mapping was added by NorthSouthGIS serving map layers from their Revera hosted ArcGIS server. A land announcements timeline map was also quickly built on the CERA website using Google Maps.

But the story didn’t end there. The Department of Building and Housing (now the Building & Housing Group within the Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment) had been working hard on developing the ‘Technical Categories’, describing expected land performance and damage in further earthquakes, and the house foundation systems likely to be required to withstand future quakes. In October 2011 CERA needed to announce the new technical categories, and knew they’d generate a similar level of interest to the initial Landcheck announcement. There wasn’t time to build out similar physical server infrastructure to that Trade Me had deployed, and it would have been very expensive. Within 48 hours of knowing the announcement was needed, Egressive had prototyped a scalable solution using the Amazon cloud platform as a front end cache and application server. This was backended with locally hosted Drupal servers with a Drupal module that automatically managed using Amazon as a content delivery network (serving images, PDFs and static files for the whole CERA website).

Within two weeks the solution was in place and tested, the data loaded, and the announcement made. Map layers were again served by NorthSouthGIS through Revera, who made sure there was enough bandwidth to the map servers for the announcement. People could look up their technical category through the My Property section of the CERA website, and view interactive maps of technical categories and land zones.

In the following year a similar approach was taken to deal with the major peak load of the Christchurch Central Recovery Plan launch by the Christchurch Central Development Unit (CCDU). More sophisticated map layers and viewers were also launched at maps.cera.govt.nz, including mobile map viewers on iPhones/iPads, Androids, and Windows Phones using the free ESRI ArcGIS mobile app.

What Was Learned?

These experiences taught us several things:

  • Drupal combined with Amazon cloud services is a very robust and cost effective method to implement a hybrid locally hosted and massively scalable solution, that can cost effectively be dialed up and back for announcements that will generate large peak loads.
  • As Dave Snowden says, the necessary preconditions for innovation are starvation, pressure, and perspective shift. If you put your IT vendors under significant time pressure, with fewer than normal resources, in a situation that’s really important to get right, they’re much more likely to come up with innovative solutions than they are when everything is comfortable.
  • When you’re under pressure, without clear certainty on what you’re building, function and develop over time, using agile and iterative approaches works. You get to deploy quickly, get customer feedback from real users, and improve the solution. We showed that it is possible for government agencies to be agile.
  • People love maps. The large majority of people think visually and spatially. They want to see information about where they live, and how things around them are affected by government policy. Interactive maps tell these stories really well.
  • Making map layers openly available for download and through live feeds as ‘open data’ makes work much more efficient for the rest of government, and the private sector. Not only are government agencies required to release data for reuse, it creates real benefits. Christchurch City Council, Waimakariri District Council, Selwyn District Council, Environment Canterbury and many central government agencies received live updates of the land zone layers and used them in their systems. Private sector infrastructure contractors and utility companies did the same. Even Wises, a paper map book provider used the spatial layers in new editions of their printed maps.

What’s Next?

Right from the start CERA was supported by Land Information New Zealand (LINZ), and the NZ Geospatial Office (NZGO). Their knowledge of implementing mapping solutions, spatial data standards, and the way to share spatial data across agencies was invaluable. The government is now looking to extend the work already done, leverage the use of location-based information to accelerate recovery and rebuild efforts in Canterbury, and ensure other regions benefit from this innovation. This programme of work is called the Canterbury Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI) Programme and will be led by LINZ/NZGO in collaboration with the Canterbury agencies.

So, you can expect to see more geospatial innovation from Canterbury in the months to come.

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