GIS video game tests crucial disaster management skills

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In the Hurricane Sandy game scenario, 
a player must determine how many 
elderly people would be affected by a storm surge that could go to varying distances from the shoreline.

In a disaster, visual representations are 
essential to helping decision makers 
understand the scope of the damage, 
identify vulnerabilities and analyze 
critical infrastructure. Today, disaster 
managers and first responders are using geographic information system software, 
or GIS, as a visual tool to prevent costly damages and save lives.

Brian Tomaszewski, an assistant professor in RIT’s Department of Information Sciences and Technologies, and a multi­disciplinary team of RIT student researchers have developed a video game designed to measure the spatial thinking ability of disaster responders. Working in partnership with the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) in Bonn, Germany, the serious game runs on ESRI’s 
ArcMAP, a GIS software system 
used by professionals in the field.

“It’s great when someone can use 
GIS software and spatial thinking to 
structure and solve a problem within 
a disaster scenario,” Tomaszewski says. “However, for many students and 
disaster managers new to GIS, the software can be quite complicated and time consuming.”

During the simulation, the player is asked a series of questions about a disaster response scenario, such as a toxic spill in the Rhine River. The questions are designed to measure spatial thinking abilities based on which ArcGIS tools players would use to respond to the disaster. For example, users may be asked how they would determine and visualize the area needed for evacuation, or perhaps buffer the area.

“Many of the operations are completed by Python scripts so that the player doesn’t actually have to know how to perform the operation using ArcGIS tools,” says Tomaszewski. “However, the game uses real GIS data and tools that make it particularly useful for realistic disaster management training.”

At the end of the scenario, the players receive a score reflecting their spatial thinking skills and speed and can discuss which choices were best and why. 

Because no two disasters are alike, the gaming framework is designed to operate 
in any scenario. Tomaszewski is working with Alyssa Matthews, an environmental science graduate student, to develop a 
scenario pertaining to the 14-foot storm surge that killed more than 100 people during Hurricane Sandy. Alan Leidner, president of the New York State GIS Association, suggested the scenario 
after hearing about the game. 

“Many of the people who died during the height of Sandy’s storm surge were elderly New York City and New Jersey residents who drowned in their basements or first-floor homes located along the coast,” says Leidner, referencing a Nov. 12, 2012, New York Times article. “If decision makers can begin to think more spatially using GIS, the loss of vulnerable individuals and infrastructure can be prevented.”

The newest Hurricane Sandy scenario allows players to combine census data, tax parcels, grid plans and storm data to identify the most vulnerable areas and create 
a plan to mitigate losses.

“There are always going to be new 
disasters that we can create a scenario from,” Tomaszewski says. “Our hope is 
to instill emergency responders with the spatial thinking skills that can be used to save lives in real situations.”