Multi-Hazard Early Warning at Global Scale: New Ways to Address Humanitarian and Economic Imperatives.

Blog / Eliot Christian / March 23, 2017

Common Operating Picture with CAP Alerts.
Common Operating Picture with CAP Alerts.

We stand today on the threshold of a profound revolution in emergency alerting for societies around the world. With recent advances in standardization and interoperability, all manner of communications networks can now be leveraged to get alerts to everyone who needs them, wherever they are and whatever they are doing. This is crucial to address moral imperatives such as saving lives and livelihoods as well as an economic imperatives such as enhancing Disaster Risk Reduction.

Historically, emergency alert messages have been mostly just text bulletins, composed like a news story. This kind of unstructured text message makes sense for personal communication, but it is a barrier to automated communications processing. A further problem was that the information in emergency messages varied widely across hazard types, and across countries and languages as well. Without a broadly agreed emergency messaging standard, all-hazards public alerting at scale was just not possible.

The Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) standard is exactly the single standard format needed. As a "standard business form for alerting", CAP is simple yet flexible enough to convey essential alerting information about any kind of emergency. Also, the alerting area is represented with Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC, a GEO Participating Organization) conventions for polygons and circles so that CAP alerts are easily processing by mapping tools as well as GIS facilities. In emergency operations centres, this processing is the basis of the ubiquitous "Common Operating Picture" map.

Alerting authorities typically implement CAP as an add-on feature to their current alerting processes. They publish a copy of the alert, in CAP format, on their own Internet news feed (RSS or ATOM). Alert re-publishers then monitor that news feed so they can automatically disseminate critical warnings to online users in the alerting area. This public-private partnership approach for online alerting already involves Google, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), and many of the major online advertisers through a consortium called the Federation for Internet Alerting.

Each alerting authority typically focuses on emergencies in one geographic region, although some span the world while focusing on one particular hazard. Such focus is a great strength but it does result in many hundreds of CAP alerts feeds that need to be aggregated for emergency alerting at larger scales.

The aggregation of CAP alerts across many news feeds is facilitated with a "CAP Alert Hub". Just as an Internet search engine helps people find relevant online resources such as merchandise for sale, Web sites and news stories, the new "Filtered Alert Hub" freeware (see http://alert-hub.org ) helps people get just the CAP alerts they want to receive. For instance, a civic authority may want to get all published alerts, while a typical citizen wants only the infrequent, high-priority alerts. The WMO Alert Hub prototype is now using this freeware and gathering alerts from about 50 countries that already publish their official CAP alert news feeds.

There are many ways in which this new emergency alerting paradigm intersects with the capabilities of participants in GEO. For example, remote sensing can be a source of CAP alerts, as has been demonstrated with satellite data optimized for spotting fires. Also, GEONETCast has been configured as a global means for disseminating CAP alerts via satellite.

Perhaps the most exciting synergies between CAP and GEO will be found in the application of GIS techniques. As one example, the Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System (GDACS) adds value to many CAP alerts by analyzing how the given alerting area overlaps with the nearby built environment. An earthquake in the empty desert, for example, has far less human impact than an earthquake near a city. The result can provide a much more refined sense of where humanitarian response should be focused.

Another frontier concerns the use of very fast geospatial processing with CAP. When needed, CAP-based alerting systems can then disseminate alerts to people in the affected location on the scale of seconds. This is essential for sudden-onset hazards such as tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunami, and flash floods.

The study of Climate Change is another area that can benefit from CAP and GIS analysis. Severe weather damage is expected to increase due to Climate Change, but the actual effect is hard to measure. The geospatial footprints of CAP alerts will provide the kind of record needed to establish baseline rates of severe weather events and track changes over time. If you are interested in prototyping such analysis using data being accumulated now by the Filtered Alert Hub project, please contact the author by email.

This is an exciting time for everyone working in emergency and disaster management. With these new capabilities, it is clear that many lives can be saved and livelihoods protected as emergency alerting becomes more available, more precise, more reliable, completely secure, and as fast as it can be.


About the author

Eliot Christian

Eliot Christian is a consultant to and retired from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). He was a chief architect of the WMO Information System and the Global Earth Observations System of Systems. Eliot is also retired from, but remains a volunteer to, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) where he worked in the Geographic Information Office and helped lead national and global programs for geospatial and environmental data sharing. Since 2001, he has been active in developing and promoting the Common Alerting Protocol standard, especially internationally.


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