ArcWatch: Your e-Magazine for GIS News, Views, and Insights

June 2011

Esri International User Conference
2011 Queensland Floods and Cyclones: How Location Intelligence Helped in Response and Recovery
When: 5:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m., Tuesday, July 12, 2011
Where: Exhibit Hall D, Public Safety Showcase Demo Theater, San Diego Convention Center
Presenter: Ben Somerville, ESRI Australia Pty. Ltd.

Online Maps Give Australian City Decision-Making Tools to Deal with Major Floods

Mapping Applications from ESRI Australia Provide Brisbane's Government and Citizens with Tools to Respond to This Year's Massive Flooding

By Nick Miller and Carla Wheeler

photo of flood waters
Flood waters reach waist level on Mark Wallace, the GIS manager at Queensland Fire and Rescue Service. He was conducting preliminary flood damage assessment in Ingham. Photo courtesy of Richard Gory.

Two Esri online web mapping applications disseminated vital information to help emergency workers and residents respond to the deadly floods that wreaked havoc in Brisbane, Australia, and outlying communities last January.

A team from ESRI Australia Pty. Ltd., Esri, and the Brisbane City Council (BCC) created the applications, which were made available using the Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2).

Esri's ArcGIS Viewer for Flex was used to develop an internal web-based map for BCC. Called the BCC Flood Common Operational Picture (COP), it gave decision makers in the city's command center information such as what areas were flooded, the flood crest, and the location of closed roads and bridges. Information from the map helped them coordinate the emergency response to the disaster.

A second web mapping viewer was created for the public. Visitors to the BCC Flood Map could see where flooding was expected to occur, call up modeled flood peak information, find the location of evacuation centers (and the number of beds available), and get news feeds about the disaster. At the flood's peak, the public-facing flood map received about 1.5 million hits.

A Historic Flood

BCC Flood COP Streets
The BCC Flood COP shows the flood extent and BCC operational sectors on top of a basemap provided by Map Data Services.

After years of devastating drought, torrential rains caused by the La Niņa weather phenomenon drenched Queensland, Australia, in late 2010. The constant rains triggered heavy flooding in Brisbane and dozens of other communities in January 2011. More than 35 people were killed, and damage to property was extensive.

By the evening of January 10, it became apparent Brisbane was about to experience serious flooding and damage to an extent not seen since 1974. That year, three weeks of rain caused the Brisbane River to overflow and flood more than 6,000 homes.

The January flooding took an even heavier toll. In Brisbane alone, almost 33,000 homes, businesses, and properties were damaged or destroyed after being inundated with mud and water. Coal mines, vital to Queensland's economy, were flooded. Insurance claims top $1.5 billion Australian dollars (A$). Damage to the country's economy-to tourism, agriculture, and mining to name a few examples- is estimated at more than A$30 billion, according to economic forecasters quoted in Australia's Herald Sun newspaper.

"In many ways, it is a disaster of biblical proportions," Andrew Fraser, Queensland's treasurer, told the media during the worst of the flooding.

Federal, state, and local governments, as well as numerous volunteer organizations, launched disaster recovery operations. BCC mobilized more than 50,000 local residents to do everything from volunteer at the evacuation centers to clean up mud- and water-damaged homes and businesses.

GIS Analysis and Web Maps

While heavy rain continued to fall, an engineering contractor worked with BCC to produce numerous hydrology models based on flow rates. The results of the models were used as part of the GIS analysis. Information produced by the GIS analysis was used to report the effects of the flood on critical infrastructure, such as what was destroyed and damaged.

the BCC Flood COP
The BCC Flood COP displays the operational sectors and the extent of flooding.

The challenge, however, was how to share information about the flood peak and where roads, bridges, and other infrastructure were flooded with the many recovery teams, work units, and community volunteers. Disseminating this information would help decision makers in the command center and in the field best coordinate and utilize the army of workers.

BCC contacted ESRI Australia for assistance. BCC and ESRI Australia decided to use ArcGIS Viewer for Flex and ArcGIS Server to create the Brisbane Flood COP. The intent was to initially create an online mapping application for the council and state and federal agencies that needed to dispatch and coordinate resources to best deal with the crisis. A second application would then be made for disseminating information to the wider, public audience.

ArcGIS Viewer for Flex is a ready-to-deploy viewer application. It is configurable, so you can easily add tools and data content without programming. You can also extend its functionality with custom widgets available from the Esri community or create custom widgets yourself with ArcGIS API for Flex.

BCC flood map
BCC placed the flood map on a public-facing web site. This view shows aerial imagery from Esri and areas inundated with water shaded in blue.

Online Map for the Public

However, the initial map on the BCC site that was meant for use by the government agencies was overwhelmed quickly as the word spread through social media channels about a flood map website. By using the Amazon EC2, ESRI Australia was able to quickly scale the infrastructure behind the application to meet the demand. Had conventional infrastructure been used, scaling the site would have been a slower, more labor-intensive task and probably would have resulted in the public being unable to get the information needed due to poor response times.

Separate websites were created for each web application so the government and the public were not competing for computing resources. The internal-facing web application gave officials at BCC and state and federal agencies their own decision-making tool.

Citizens used the public-facing Brisbane Flood Map to see which roads were affected by the flooding, find evacuation centers, and view the modeled flood peak layer. As the flood peak passed and the waters started to subside, BCC wanted to use the Brisbane Flood Map to communicate how the council was going to manage the huge task of cleaning up the city.

photo of debris removed from homes
Flood debris removed from homes in Brisbane, Australia. Photo courtesy of Tom Patterson.

The Esri-based web viewer proved to be an ideal solution for BCC and was similar to defense COPs. Defense COPs use the concept of a basemap and a series of operational overlays. In many ways, the BBCs Flood COP was designed around the same principles. Map Data Services (MDS) supplied the basemap, MDS Foundation Map, a ready-to-use cached map service with authoritative street and property information for Australia.

As the floodwaters continued to rise, the internal and external websites were constantly updated with new operational overlays. Planning layers such as operational sectors and emergency waste disposal sites were established. Multiple agencies used the BCC Flood COP to respond to the emergency. The mapping application benefited not only BCC staff but other emergency responders such as members of the fire and rescue services, police and ambulance units, and various Australia Defence Force) (ADF) personnel that assisted in the operations.

The public-facing BCC Flood Map was also launched using Esri's ArcGIS Viewer for Flex. People who wanted to know if their house was going to possibly be damaged by the flood could visualize the areas already inundated and bring up flood prediction maps. A Microsoft Bing Locator was added to allow the public to search for an address and easily navigate to that address. Evacuation centers, often located in stadiums or churches, were placed on the map. People could click the Evacuation Centres button on the application's toolbar to add those sites to the map. They could then zoom in to their neighborhood to find the center closest to them. An Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) GeoRSS feed was also added to provide constant news updates from the field.

This year's flooding in Queensland, Australia was the worst to occur since the mid-1970s. Photo courtesy of Richard Gory.

Mobile users, however, could not view the online flood maps, because they lacked the support for Flash that was needed to access BCC's sites. To combat this limitation, a web map was created using the flood-related services from ArcGIS Server and the Bing basemap. This web map was created in ArcGIS Online and exposed to the public through a public group called Queensland Floods. Creating web maps using ArcGIS Online exposes mashups and functionality to a range of end users through many devices. In this case, it allowed iPhone, iPad, and Windows Phone users to see the same flood-related content on their mobile devices.

Queensland, though a large state in area, acts like a small, tightly knit community. People came from far and wide to assist in the cleanup and recovery process. The BCC Flood COP and BCC Flood Map assisted many of them in their work; kept citizens updated on flooding information; and helped evacuees find the locations of shelters.

Further mapping efforts using ArcGIS Viewer for Flex can be seen on the Queensland Reconstruction Authority's website,

For more information about the project, contact Ben Somerville, industry solutions architect at ESRI Australia, at or +61400016394.

Contact Us | Privacy | Legal | Site Map