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Better Understanding Disaster Risk: A New Dataset Is Set to Make a Difference

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These maps of the Niger Delta show the increased detail through higher-resolution datasets newly released by the U.S. Geological Survey. Credit: USGS

​​Imagine you are a city official who wants to ensure all future infrastructure and urban development in your city is climate- and disaster-sensitive. The first step is to understand the natural hazards of today and tomorrow—flood, storm surge, sea level rise, etc.—and how they could impact your city. Thanks to higher-resolution geospatial datasets released this week by the U.S. Government, you will now be able to have a better understanding of the risks your city faces and how to manage them. 

These newly available Digital Elevation Models (DEMs) were developed by the U.S. Government and detail the surface of the earth in 3D. By illustrating the geography and topography of an area, they enable users to quantify the potential destructive impact of water-related hazards. As a city official, you will be able to base your analyses on 3D maps showing the natural terrain and elevation of your city, which determine the path of the water. 

Until today, you had two choices for this kind of 3D surface map: rely on the free, low-resolution model from the U.S. Government and contend with results that have severe limitations and significant uncertainty, or commission a more accurate high-resolution model of the terrain at significant cost. 

Now, with a nine-fold improvement, predictions for the impact of flood, storm surge or sea level rise can be more accurate and more helpful for urban and disaster risk management planning. For an official or community leader from a vulnerable country, being able to access this dataset free of charge, allows for better resource planning and mobilization on the ground, leading to improved resilience.

The Global Facility for Disaster Recovery and Reconstruction (GFDRR) and the World Bank recognized early the value of access to high-resolution DEMs as a critical factor in better quantifying risk, particularly in highly vulnerable developing countries. In March, a small group of practitioners, convened by GFDRR and hosted at the World Bank, set in motion the process for enabling wider access to highresolution DEMs. They discussed the promotion of open data for resilience, and determined ways to move that agenda forward.

Building on that initial meeting, an informal coalition of committed stakeholders – development agencies, technology companies, academia, civil society, insurers and re-insurers – grew around this issue, all advocating for the release of high-resolution DEMs. Today, this partnership saw success: The White House announced the release of a free and open dataset which is nine times the resolution of any of the freely available global datasets that anyone, anywhere in the world, could previously access.

The first milestone was achieved in June at the GFDRR-hosted Understanding Risk Forum, when Airbus and Google announced a partnership to accelerate the release, at a cost, of even higher-resolution datasets than those the U.S. Government is releasing today. This, followed by today’s commitment from the White House, demonstrates the power of partnerships.

Over the next five years, various efforts spanning the globe, including those by Japanese and German space agencies, will produce even more accurate digital elevation datasets. But for now, even a tiny, vulnerable island in the South West Indian Ocean will have access to information about its elevation and shape that is nine times more detailed than it was before – a huge step forward in better estimating and preparing for the impacts of natural disasters, climate change and sea level rise.


Alanna Simpson

Lead Disaster Risk Management Specialist

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