Northridge Retrospective: Early Use of Big Data for Emergency Response

Guest Blog by Charles Huyck

This post is the third in a three-part series looking back to the Magnitude 6.7 Northridge earthquake of Jan 17, 1994.

The Northridge earthquake jump-started an era of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and catastrophe modeling to support emergency response, and I had the good luck of getting caught in the middle of it.

Fresh out of college with a geography degree from the University of Iowa, I’d moved to San Francisco with my wife like thousands of other idealistic Midwesterners looking for work in the recession. My skills as a short-order cook, however, proved more valuable in this quest than my degree.

Before long, though, my geography degree ended up being useful. Soon after the Northridge earthquake hit, I was hired by the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (OES) to make maps and analyze data.  In this role, I had the good fortune to work closely with a group of engineers from EQE International that included Hope Seligson, Keith Porter, and Ron Eguchi.

As it turned out, my skills as a short order cook were quite valuable here, too.  With GIS emerging on desktop computers, it was possible for the first time to rapidly produce customized maps with hundreds of variables – maps that local, state, and federal responders needed immediately.  In an environment where a 1 gigabyte hard drive was a luxury, we had to map and cross-reference demographic data, shaking intensity, availability of resources, injuries and fatalities, schools and critical facilities, and inspected damage, all quickly and error-free.

I learned to apply the time-critical precision and focus of a line cook to the tasks of a GIS data-analyst. Like chefs working in a chaotic kitchen, I formed close professional and personal bonds with the OES-GIS / EQE team, which stand to this day. Two landmark reports from this collaboration are referenced below and provide a wealth of insight into the death, damage, and downtime that followed the Northridge quake.

real-time maps after Northridge

This fast-paced collaboration also formed the direction of my professional research: it helped me realize the value of immediate information that GIS and remote sensing can provide.

The importance of data and information in emergency response and recovery took on a new importance for me after visiting Turkey following the Marmara (a.k.a. Izmit or Koaceli) earthquake of 1999. After witnessing utter devastation, it became clear that by helping create solutions for far-reaching problems, I could have tremendous impact.

The underlying values of ImageCat support this dream: Our post-event focus strives to provide responders and planners with the intelligence they need to make the best decisions possible and save lives. It is exciting to help JumpStart Recovery come to fruition with a similar dream – of providing a means to help everyone get back on their feet and reduce the social disruption that so often can lead to stalled economic recovery.

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Contributor Charles Huyck is the Executive Vice President of ImageCat, Inc. As a founding partner, Mr. Huyck has been instrumental in developing business strategies for integrating spatial technologies and risk assessment. Operationally, he oversees a team of engineers, scientists, and programmers developing CAT modeling and analytic tools for risk assessment.

Resources:

EQE International and the Geographic Information Services Group of the State of California, “The Northridge Earthquake of January 17, 1994: Preliminary Report of Data Collection and Analysis, Part A: Damage and Inventory Data,” April 1995.

EQE International and the Geographic Information Services Group of the State of California, “The Northridge Earthquake of January 17, 1994: Preliminary Report of Data Collection and Analysis, Part B: Analysis and Trends,” April 1997.