GEOG 588
Planning GIS for Emergency Management

Mapping Risk


Understanding the Geography of Vulnerability

Developing a clear picture of an area's vulnerability to hazards and disasters is a non-trivial task. It's hard to predict exactly what could happen in a disaster situation. However, even a rough estimate can be a huge help to emergency managers and decision makers who can use that information to develop plans for allocating resources and managing recovery operations. By collecting socio-economic and environmental data sources in a GIS, we can develop risk maps to highlight the potential impact of disasters on people and infrastructure. Our focus in this course is not on the specific analytical methods for doing vulnerability assessment - instead we will reflect on the critical issues associated with planning an emergency management GIS sytem that includes vulnerability assessment as one of its key functions. Most systems for GIS and emergency management are designed for reaction, not prediction and mitigation.

There are a wide range of relevant questions to consider when conducting a vulnerability assessment, including answers to the following key questions:

  • Who is at risk? How many will be affected?
  • What is the spatial and temporal extent of the vulnerability?
  • What capacity does the population at risk have for coping with the disaster?
  • What is the range of possible scenarios given different conditions (for example, a Category 2 hurricane vs. a Category 5 hurricane)?


I'm sure you can think of other relevant questions - so I'd like you to post at least one you would add to this list as a comment in the Canvas Lesson 3 Reading Discussion.

The map below is part of a nice online mapping tool developed by Maplecroft, a risk management consulting firm based in the UK. This map shows vulnerability to climate change based on an index developed by Maplecroft. This particular map is quite generalized - they offer much more detailed within-country maps to their paying clients (hmm... so vulnerability mapping is another way to make money with GIS!).

Global map of climate change vulnerability

If you like, you can register for free trial access to their site (you can check off the boxes to avoid any e-mail updates from them). It's an interesting place to poke around to see how companies develop and package risk assessment geospatial products.

Other firms provide what is known as Address Risk Rating products - in essence, you can look up a specific address and get a report outlining all of the vulnerabilities associated with that location. One of our PSU faculty, Dr. James O'Brien, works for Risk Frontiers in Australia, a firm that works on Address Risk Rating products amongst others. You can check out their work here.

The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) also coordinates and conducts a great deal of vulnerability assessment work, particularly in the area of flood mapping. FEMA flood maps are used to help set flood insurance rates, among other things. The mapping tool here shows an overview of ongoing FEMA flood mapping, levee repair, and other flood-related risk assessment and mitigation tasks.

The United Nations engages with other entities to develop risk maps for developing countries where they are likely to be involved in future disaster situations. If you check out this map in greater detail, notice who collaborated to develop this map. It includes several NGOs, as well as Munich Re, a major re-insurance player. Interesting, huh?


Add a comment in the Canvas Lesson 3 Reading Discussion describing additional types of information you would include on your own version of a risk map for a country like Indonesia. Consider the primary users of this kind of map as well. What would you want to do in order to make this easier to consume by citizens as opposed to decision makers?