Roadmap to Recovery

11 Dec, 2006 By: Kenneth Wong

MapInfo and GIS give direction to post-hurricane New Orleans

It was late afternoon on Friday, September 2, 2005. Hurricane Katrina had finally been downgraded to a tropical depression. Two days before, it had been a Category Three monster, wreaking havoc on the Gulf Coast with 125-mph winds. About 1,400 miles away in Troy, New York, the phone rang at MapInfo headquarters. On the other end was a staffer from the Louisiana Bureau of Primary Care and Rural Health, located in Baton Rouge. The Bureau had already evacuated its associates from New Orleans, but in the ensuing rush, it lost some of its data and operational capacities.

"They were a bit desperate," said Greg Donahue, MapInfo's senior marketing manager. "They wanted to make sure they could track certain scenarios and take preventative measures."

MapInfo put together a number of software products, along with several DVDs containing relevant geospatial data. By then, company shipping personnel had gone home for the day, and FedEx and UPS had completed their last pickups. Undaunted, MapInfo employees drove to Albany International Airport and handed the package over to the FedEx plane crew. The Bureau received the delivery the next day and was able to resume work.

The Map Guy Arrives

Jonathan Chapman, the Bureau's health system development manager, admits he's better known at work as "The Map Guy." What he found on his predecessor's shelf when he arrived eight years ago was a collection of software, including an outdated version of a MapInfo application.
"I thought to myself, 'Oh, I think I can use this for my work,' and started playing around with it," he recalled. In 2003, while browsing the MapInfo user forum, he found a MapInfo announcement regarding E-Government grants.

MapInfo established the grant program during the 2003 E-Gov Conference, hosted by the E-Gov Institute. The company awarded technology grants to 50 U.S. municipalities and government agencies involved in the E-Government initiative, a White House-led program to promote Web-based IT infrastructure for streamlining government offices.

Chapman and Jeanne Haupt, a Bureau coworker, applied for the grant. Selected as a 2003 winner, the Bureau was awarded a suite of MapInfo location-based software and a dataset supplied by Geographic Data Technology (later acquired by Tele Atlas). Since then, MapInfo products have become an integral part of Bureau operations.

At present, the Bureau actively uses MapInfo Pro 8.5 and MapMarker Plus. "We're merging with the Office of Chronic Disease, which has some experience with ESRI," Chapman said, raising the possibility that he and his team will soon be working with both MapInfo and ESRI products.

Where Are the Doctors?

The Bureau is responsible for recruiting and retaining primary healthcare providers, business planning and community development. Chapman uses GIS to conduct economic impact studies and identify trends. "The technology comes into play when we want to, for example, thematically map certain indicators on top of healthcare facility locations," he explained.

By plotting existing healthcare facilities according to population and income, the Louisiana Bureau of Primary Care and Rural Health was able to determine where additional providers were needed. FTE (full-time equivalent) refers to the number of providers needed.

At first GIS was only an internal tool, used to track displaced Bureau employees and relocate primary care providers. As the potential of GIS became clearer, the mapping projects became more complex.

"New Orleans, like other metropolitan cities, has certain socioeconomic divisions," said Chapman. "We were able to plot them and overlay the facilities on top of the demographics, with the status of the hospitals, so we knew which ones were closed, which were partially open and which were still open. Then we brought in FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] maps of flooded and dry areas. Basically, the insights from this drove the recovery-planning process."

In post-hurricane recovery efforts, GIS became an important crisis monitoring and assessment tool. Using MapInfo technology, Chapman and his colleagues were able to plot the anticipated population shifts and the healthcare providers available in the area. Based on the population-to-provider ratio discovered from these graphs, the Bureau was able to determine how to redistribute providers for best coverage. In Chapman's words, "Five minutes of planning prevents 20 minutes of chaos."

This map illustrates estimated population shifts, select health facilities, and their operational status. The Bureau used this analysis to gauge where providers should be refocused based on population shifts and the discovered provider-to-population ratios.

Common Denominator

"One of the reasons GIS experts like to use MapInfo's technology is because of how open it is," said Greg Donahue, MapInfo's senior marketing manager. "We have clients who use other GIS packages, but they will also have a copy of MapInfo Professional as well, because it complements other products, and contains a universal translator. So in the case of [the Bureau], they were able to bring in a wide variety of formats: JPEG files, CAD files, DXF files and shape files."

The Bureau maintains its own database on care providers' locations and hours of operation. According to Chapman, his team's mapping exercises would typically involve census bureau statistics (such as population divisions by income, race, etc.), records of licenses issued by the Medical Exam Board, FEMA disaster maps and data from the National Center for Statistics' Fatality Analysis Reporting System. "Fortunately, MapInfo has a converter, and most people now use shape files," Chapman said.

Changing the World

Soon after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck, an open letter appeared on the MapInfo Web site from Mark Cattini, president and CEO. It read: "Due to the devastating circumstances surrounding both Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita, we are extending our offer to volunteer our services where appropriate and where we are able to assist with the rescue and recovery efforts for both Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita. ... If you're a current MapInfo licensee, we will waive, where appropriate, license restrictions during the declared disaster period. Whether you're a current customer or not, we would be pleased to produce these maps or provide the software necessary to assist in the production of maps. We can post maps to the Internet for your convenience. We are also volunteering to you, where possible, the use of our professional service group on-site to help facilitate the production of maps. Our partner, Tele Atlas, has also offered to provide data, as needed, to create maps."

Local broadcaster WTEN of Albany, New York, took note of MapInfo's offer of aid, acknowledging the technology came "at a time when the latest information can make all the difference to survivors."

In May 2006, MapInfo recognized several of its customers with Meridian Awards for their innovative use of its technology. The Louisiana Bureau of Primary Care and Rural Health was named winner of the category titled "Changing the World." MapInfo praised the Bureau's efforts to "better evaluate transportation issues, engage in strategic planning projects and develop better visual information."

About the Author: Kenneth Wong

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