Packing Your Digital Go-Bag
At the beginning of fire season in 2019 I visited the Situation Room at PG&E’s downtown San Francisco headquarters and it was like walking onto a movie set. There were floor-to-ceiling monitors and rows of analysts watching live-streams from remote webcams on fire watch towers and dashboards tracking Twitter, weather stations and fire prediction algorithms. This kind of tactical information analysis is what the pros do.
The rest of us probably have a favorite weather app or maybe an emergency alert notification but having a robust digital go-bag of information can be as invaluable as a stash of fresh batteries and bottled water. We don’t make good decisions in times of duress so it’s important that we make good plans about how we will stay informed before we need to.
As a professional cartographer and data scientist, I’ve been reviewing reliable sources of information that you might want to pack into your bookmarks folder.
In Short: This page is for the pros. It’s easy to use and it’s reliable.
CalFire is California’s state fire management agency. It has its own air force and a ballooning state/federal budget in the billions. After the US Forest Service and fossil fuel companies, they’re probably responsible for these massive forest fires more than anyone but for now, they’re the ones coordinating much of what is happening on the ground and they generate a ton of data about it.
The state map is updated daily from ground crews and aerial observation so it’s among the most current and detailed sources for wildfire information in California.
The map has fire perimeter polygons usually updated daily as well as satellite “hotspots” which are just places on the earth’s surface that a satellite’s infrared sensor can detect as particularly hot. The satellite imagery that detects infrared energy has really low resolution; NASA’s VIIRS satellite has a resolution of 375 meters which means you get one data point every quarter mile but even that’s better than what MODIS could do in the past. It’s great for detecting new fire threats and it is very good at showing where in a region there are active fires. Not all hot spots get attention when fire response teams are busy elsewhere so for rural folks, this data layer could be a real life saver.
For a fire that is encroaching dangerously close to communities and is drawing support from CalFire aircraft, crews on the ground, vehicles and drones, we probably have a good idea where the fire lines are, what the acreage burned is and how hot the fire is burning. There’s even a leaderboard keeping tabs on total acreage burned but I’m not sure what anyone is supposed to do with that. Is the fire big? Bigger than normal? Bigger than expected? There’s no context or meaning in these numbers. People can die from small fires just as easily as big ones and the more pertinent numbers are how fast the fire is moving, to what extent is the fire contained, in what direction is it going and how far away it is from me. For people who know what they’re looking at though, this map is grand.
Intterra Situational Awareness Map 🔥🚒🧯
In short: This is a map for professional decision makers and first responders. It’s very good official data but comprehensiveness comes at the expense of information overload.
During my brief tenure at PG&E, I helped build an app for field crews to maintain situational awareness and we incorporated data from two major sources: the aforementioned CalFire and GeoMAC which is USGS’ open fire data nexus that collects live satellite and emergency crew data across the country and collects it into a single callable API. It worked well but in May of 2020 GEOMAC was replaced with the National Fire Situational Awareness map that was created by Intterra, a private software company contracted by USGS to provide analytics and IT services for fire fighting organizations anywhere in the USA.
Interra Group was co-founded by California’s ex-state Fire Marshall Kate Dargan and it seems to have been assembled with an insider’s knowledge of what emergency responders need: vegetation, weather, terrain, roads, support and tons of other assets. At first I was nervous that USGS was needlessly feeding some vulture software company with generous government contracts but I think Interra has done really important work.
States, cities, counties, the NWS, USFS, DOI and DHS are all producing and consuming huge amounts of emergency response data and all of those different agencies would be impossible to coordinate without the National Interagency Fire Center which is operated by the Bureau of Land Management. The NIFC partnered with ESRI to create a curated data repository called the National Incident Feature Service for the emergency management community and it’s a one-stop-shop for inter-agency fire management needs. While they stock most of their data on ArcGISOnline (AGOL), viewers can go directly to the Situational Awareness map to see live visualizations of conditions without writing a line of code.
At large extents, the map can give you an idea of how many fires are going on at any particular time. I don’t know if dashboards are a requirement for all ESRI partners but we certainly got ‘em.
At smaller extents, the Intterra map isn’t the prettiest but it’s definitely the decision-maker’s best friend. It has everything: fuel models, 7 day forecasts, fire crews and overall risk assessments. Perhaps even more importantly, there are two tabs that can be toggled between a “Basic” and “Advanced” menu of data layers to keep the amateurs among us from getting bogged down with information while the professionals can add dozens of layers and modify their transparency to show them all at once.
As a developer, I liked that the data cited its sources in each layer tab which means that those who are interested in making their own maps won’t have to reinvent the wheel and just copy and paste the REST API details with ease. This is like a shopping cart for important geospatial data. Of course, most of it is already hosted by ESRI so most of it can be searched within AGOL by those deep-pocketed Enterprise users cruising the Living Atlas from ArcGIS Pro.
Another great feature is that the webmap will actually allow you to upload your own data so you can see whatever assets you want to see in context which is much easier for small organizations than to download all of the relevant data sets to use locally.
I was surprised that I didn’t hear anything about this map. It’s clearly feeding data to many end users but I haven’t seen it make many waves on its own.
In Short: This is supposed to be a pretty map so that the world can see what’s up with California. It has good information but it’s not fine enough for residents to plan by it and it’s somewhat confusing to navigate.
Unsurprisingly, the LA Times has a fantastic interactive map. There’s a lot of information here, mostly from CalFire, and with so many different parameters using effectively the same color scheme there’s a great deal of overlapping information.
I like the high-contrast black background but I think the addition of the lighter colored relief shading looks too much like the smoke layer on top. I’m not sure it adds anything and I’d probably remove it from my map.
There’s a smoke layer shown as a gray wavy texture. It’s huge and broad and mostly just shows where smoke is dense across the continent. It’s not exactly a neighborhood by neighborhood evaluation.
X’s that mark fires are replaced with orange polygons of the fire’s true extent as you zoom in. These are very important for residents who might be making decisions about evacuation. Aesthetically I find it a bit jarring for symbols to change that drastically at different zoom levels but it’s effective.
You can see how this large fire is represented by a shaded polygon from CalFire’s fire perimeter layer and the darker hot spot markers show how the lower resolution satellite imagery is picking up active fire in a grid pattern. These are redundant data layers and probably not that helpful.
At wide extents, the fire intensity is represented by hexbins to show regionally how big and intense the fires are to show where the problem clusters are.
Overall, this map is mostly for a national or statewide audience. It’s great at showing the big picture but probably won’t help locals too much. The LA Times is not a small town paper and they have an international audience. One of the things that I thought about exploring this map was about the pressures that newspapers and local journalism have been under and it occurred to me that, while the technology has lower barriers to entry than ever, many of the local organizations that could take advantage of today’s powerful mapping tools for small, local audiences, probably don’t exist any more for many communities.
SF Chronicle 🔥🌫☁
In Short: Much cleaner looking, has good information about smoke and fire that are easier to follow and use. Probably my best pick for fire monitoring.
The San Francisco Chronicle version is not substantially different from the others and it pulls data from the same sources as the LA Times. I do, however, prefer this composition because it’s cleaner, a bit easier to read and has a nicely labelled legend. Each fire has a neat popup with a ‘percent contained’ figure which is a good indicator of how likely the fire is to affect nearby areas outside its current perimeter. Those fires that are 100% contained are not extinguished but they do have a fire break cut around them by bull dozers and fire lines that keep them from spreading into nearby areas and threatening residents. A 100% contained fire is only dangerous for those within the perimeter and those downwind of the noxious smoke.
And speaking of smoke, this same map has a couple of tabs to access different data layers including air quality from smoke:
I can’t figure out where the air quality data is from but it’s been nicely presented here and I love the wind animation reminiscent of windy.com that I suspect the webmap department licensed. Air quality can vary greatly by region and even throughout the day because of the wind so it’s great to see wind direction depicting how air quality for a region might be expected to change.
IQAir Visual 💨🌫☁
In Short: Ugly, plain, unambiguous government agency map tells you the story. Reliable and useful.
Here’s a classic government website. It uses a red-green threat assessment color scheme to show where, generally, the air quality will be bad. It doesn’t have much in the way of resolution and doesn’t take into account how quickly smoke can change with the wind but it’s a good, simple and effective gauge of regional air quality using some simple interpolation. Your region might vary as smoke moves easily when disturbed by complicated ground-level winds but if you need an answer to the question “how bad is it here, is it worse there, will I need an N95 mask?” then this is all the map you need.
As an added bonus, there’s a tracker chart that shows the results from specific gauge stations. You can see variation over time and compare the hourly means reported by stations using the same color code as the map. These are very precise and very accurate stations that don’t have the kind of variability that Purple Air has (we’ll discuss that in a moment). I’m not really sure what to do with this chart though. It won’t forecast air quality issues and I don’t live right next to any of them but these are the most authoritative numbers you can get.
Air Now 💨🌫☁
In Short: Government approved and very easy to use but imprecise.
The map is clean and effective and it’s based on another interpolation model so even while the station readings are officially approved by the EPA, they only refresh hourly and your individual mileage may vary depending on how far away from the station you are.
The website prompts the user to type in a zip code which I think is a little strange. Am I naive to think that most people can identify the location of their home on a map of California? But doing it this way does create a simple, easy to read evaluation of the air at your location based on accepted standards. I live here. The air quality is bad. Wear a mask. You don’t need to see how bad it is a few counties over. If you just want a expert to tell you what to do, this web page will do that.
Josh Hug at UC Berkeley has a great breakdown of where these numbers come from and you should read his excellent explainer piece here.
In Short: It’s pretty and it’s good for seeing how pollutants are being blown across the continent but it probably shouldn’t be used to inform decisions.
The wind animation is what made Windy.com as popular as it is (and it is mesmerizing to behold) but they have a dizzying array of other meterological parameters to toggle on including waves, sea state and several airborne pollutants like smoke. This map of 2.5 micron particulate air quality is substantially different from Purple Air (below and I’m not sure exactly where the data comes from). I know that their wind model is interpolated from weather stations around the world, mostly at airports, and I wonder if this map is interpolated from only a handful of official EPA gauges that have open APIs which might explain very low resolution around urban areas. The big mark against this map is that each point on the map looks to be of equal confidence in the value provided when really the computer is filling in all of the gaps with good guesses and not all values are equally reliable.
Purple Air 💨🌫☁
In Short: It’s an up to the minute report of pretty accurate data in your neighborhood but outside of cities it isn’t nearly as useful.
Purple Air is a crowd-sourced air quality sensor network. Purple Air sells the monitors and they are connected to the internet to create a massive, international webmap with very high resolution in areas with dense populations and almost no coverage at all in rural areas. There is no interpolation so there’s no confusion about what is being claimed. The reliability of the numbers is pretty good but contested by experts who point out that Purple Air overestimates pollution when measuring particulate from wood smoke. The quick fix is to apply the LRAPA (Lane Regional Air Protection Agency) conversion function seen here:
This will make the numbers come out a bit lower and line up better with AirNow’s official EPA readings and it’s a good idea to do something similar when the particulate counts exceed 150 by selecting the AQandU conversion. Again, Josh Hug explains it better.
There’s a little radio button to turn on indoor air quality measurements which I can’t imagine having much real value to anyone unconcerned whether the neighbors are burning their dinner on the stove but for those who have purchased indoor air monitors, they get the best data of anyone where it matters most to them. I live in a neighborhood with tons of air quality sensors so I feel pretty confident that the values are accurate and outliers are easy to spot and disregard. If I lived in the hills somewhere and I didn’t have a monitor of my own, I’d feel pretty left out.
In Short: This is really an explainer story about fires and smoke in California. It’s excellent context but not a decision making tool.
This is a gorgeous explainer map detailing everything California has gone through in recent years and it’s excellent visual storytelling starring MapBox’s own “scrolly map” which rolled out to compete with ESRI’s ubiquitous Story Maps. This isn’t an incident map per se but I hope it informs decisions made by homeowners and policy makers to address the growing problem of Californians choosing to live in an Wildland Urban Interface zone that is getting hotter, drier and more dangerous.
PG&E Power Outage Maps ⚡💡🔦🔌☀
In Short: PGE can tell you who doesn’t have power right now but it’s awkward and difficult to find out if you’re going to lose power during a planned outage.
Right now, the same outage map that has been used for years is still functioning as normal. There is a green-yellow-red color coded outage map that helps customers see the extent of the outage they’re experiencing, when it started and how to stay updated on repairs. This is a map for normal operations. It’s fine.
Of course, in 2019 PG&E was famously shutting power off preemptively to prevent starting wildfires that might have created liabilities for the bankrupt power company but in August of 2020 the situation was very different. A record setting heat wave settled over California producing the highest temperature ever reliably recorded on the Earth’s surface and a spike in power consumption combined with a lull in wind power meant that state power generators just couldn’t satisfy demand. The result was a drastic power shortage that threatened rolling blackouts across the state and frantic pleas from authorities for residents to conserve power in the evenings when AC demand was highest but when the state’s huge solar power capacity tapered off. Enough people complied that actual power consumption was a full 10% lower than estimated and the worst outages were avoided when winds picked up and boosted generation over the top.
Since the problem was not PG&E’s creation, I cut them a generous amount of slack for not having a more intuitive way of telling customers whether they’d be in a blackout zone but the process was Byzantine: users typed their addresses into a search bar to get a number that corresponded to the circuit their building was on and then they were prompted to visit a separate page to see which circuits were predicted to get shut off and when.
There is a Find A Cooling Center Location Near You function on the PG&E website but when I typed in my zip code, I couldn’t find a cooling center within 20 miles of me. The nearest ones are in San Jose and Tracy, where admittedly, it gets much hotter than the East Bay. An official PDF has also been released by PG&E which has been released to local news stations like KRON4. San Jose Mercury and NBC Bay Area and most of the resources that I’ve seen related to cooling centers are just lists of centers by county and don’t include any maps or graphics. I also didn’t see any acknowledgement or special consideration for the need to practice social distancing within them. Heat waves are going to get worse and in a pandemic it’s not an acceptable solution to put older folks in a room together under a single AC unit. We need to be better prepared and it’s clear that cities and counties need to be taking this challenge up.
San Francisco Chronicle Planned Outages ⚡💡🔦🔌
In Short: Simple, pretty and effective for seeing where PG&E might limit service.
Some outages are easier to predict. At time of publishing, Northern California hasn’t yet entered peak fire season and it’s likely that PG&E will shut off power to some areas to reduce the liability of sparking a wildfire like they did last September and October of 2020 as part of the Public Safety Power Shutoff events that we should get used to. The Chronicle’s map is basically just like PG&E’s, even using their own data, but this one is prettier, easier to use and has more functionality. A map of outages, a button to add fire risk areas and an address lookup bar to see if your home falls into a planned outage. That’s it. This is an embarrassingly simple map that PG&E should have done and should have on their website now.
I’ve already written a hasty analysis of maps tracking the Corona Virus way back in March so if you’re interested you can read this time capsule from (checks notes and sighs deeply) six months ago here. The pandemic has complicated the response to every other emergency that has happened this year and even with a vaccine the threat of a pandemic should be taken seriously at all times.
Down Detector 📞📶💡🔌⚡
In Short: This is a powerful resource for seeing if it’s just you or everybody else experiencing a power outage or loss of service. It’s compatible with a ton of service providers, the maps are simple and there are links to communicate directly with customer service representatives to report and fix outages.
Now that 42% of Americans are working from home and schools are starting up again, we’ve become even more reliant on delivering power and information directly to our homes and these simple maps are a great way to see where a problem with a conference call or video course originates.
The Twitter feed sidebar is gold too.
In Short: An app designed for doomscrollers and the paranoid has some important features that will probably get buried under an avalanche of unnecessary notifications.
Citizen is sometimes criticized for the same reason that Nextdoor is: there is a large market for fear and apps that empower wealthier, whiter folks to direct complaints against poorer and darker skinned neighbors are troublingly common. The black background and red incident reports look somewhat menacing and I’m not sure it promotes healthy vigilance as much as paranoia. Living in Oakland, I had to turn the notifications off because a torrent of car jackings, muggings, gunshot sounds recorded by Shot Spotter microphones and other Oakland Police Department announcements numbed me and none of them felt actionable. In the five years I’ve lived in this neighborhood I haven’t been bothered by much crime so why should I be constantly alerted to it?
Other notifications are more useful and the app will reliably deliver government warnings about natural disasters, public disruptions, missing persons and other public messaging. It’s a good source of local warnings from reputable government services as well as law enforcement and there’s a social element that allows users to connect with friends and check in on each other. I’m not sure what utility that function has that texting doesn’t but it seems to be like the Facebook “Mark Safe” feature which is a useful way to achieve peace of mind.
Citizen has a somewhat limited rollout to only a handful of large American cities but I suspect that these kinds of apps will be ubiquitous soon. Greater community accountability and stronger relationships between police and residents is at the heart of many calls for police reform but that also makes me nervous. Feeling like you have a direct line to law enforcement, I fear, will give white people a sense of entitlement to police attention and make them feel like it’s THEIR force to be directed at others. If I had evidence that showed that this app was used mostly by the communities that are most likely to be both over policed and victimized by crime, I’d quickly change my tune.
Snapchat Map 📸📹🤳🚔🚨
In Short: Sometimes knowing what the kids are up to is useful. This is an easy way to find out where there are crowds which, combined with other news sources, can help figure out what’s going on nearby.
To those readers over 45 years old, Snapchat is a social media platform on mobile devices that lets users send messages and post public content (mostly shaky, handheld videos in portrait mode) that disappear after they’ve been viewed and, like other social media, the content is tagged with location information. Of course, the only reason I know about it is because way more young people are on TikTok these days. At least for now.
Snapchat users around the world are posting all kinds of content and at any given moment you’ll see clusters of uploads typically occurring around tourist destinations, events and the Kabba in Mecca. During protests, however, many demonstrators live record their perspective to amplify the message of the movement and it’s been a useful way of generating engagement on social issues. In 2018, students used the SnapMap function to show the effect of gun control activism after the Stoneman-Douglas school shooting in Parkland Florida.
I’ve been using the SnapMap feature on the app to see where new photos and videos are being uploaded from and during times of civil unrest this is probably one of the better ways to take a region’s temperature. During the George Floyd protests in Oakland, I used the app to see where demonstrators were moving, where break-ins were happening and where police officers were pushing crowds. Sometimes this led me to stay home. Sometimes it informed me where to go. Keep in mind that any tool this useful is already being actively monitored by law enforcement. Do with that what you will.
In Short: Like Snapchat, this map tells you where folks are tweeting from and about what. It’s a good way to quickly get in the loop if you don’t mind doing some sifting.
Speaking of Twitter, here is another option for watching social media. Zooming into this striking map and searching by hashtag is one of the techniques that hazard monitoring agencies use to keep tabs of what social media is discussing and witnessing. Activists can see the efficacy of their demonstrations and test out messaging. Law enforcement agencies use these same sites to monitor them. Journalists report on location live, everyday citizens can call attention to stories as they develop and the rest of us can follow crowd-sourced journalism on small, local and quickly moving stories better than anywhere else.
The usual social media caveats apply here. Unlike Snapchat which is dominated by new uploaded content with very little editing, a sizeable chunk of Twitter is reposting the content produced by others. Users who want to boost the attention given to a particular tweet will share it, often without checking its veracity and as a result, fake news can move even faster than the truth especially during the first hours of a tragedy like an act of terrorism. On the Media created a graphic to remind folks how to spot disreputable news on social media and it should be permanently adhered to every computer screen that rolls off the assembly line.
Being prepared means following emergency guidelines like maintaining a stash of water and nonperishable food, fresh batteries, and a plan to check in with friends and loved ones. The next step means figuring out where to find help, where risks are located and where we can go to be safe.
The last and best resource you have in the event of an emergency is the knowledge, compassion and effort of your neighbors. The Nextdoor App has a great map and many features designed to bring neighbors together but Nextdoor has struggled in recent years to shed it’s reputation for being the ultimate Karen weapon. Until the app can make all of its users feel included, Black folks in particular, Nextdoor seems less like a tool for community resiliency and more like just another exclusive social network for preserving the power that wealthier, whiter communities have maintained for generations. What’s better than an app? I suggest a more old fashioned way to meet your neighbors: your favorite side dish and a wave. The map for your neighborhood emergency plan is one you can make together.