Although photo-mapping is commonly used to document the locations and conditions of assets, some city and county governments are finding that the technique along with GPS-enabled digital cameras can quickly and accurately assess property damage after natural disasters. Officials in Accomack County, Va., and Webster County, Mo., say it is the most efficient way to collect the data needed to apply for federal assistance after storms. Fargo, N.D., also has found that photo-mapping minimizes fraudulent reimbursement claims following floods.

Photo-mapping expanded beyond the domain of GIS professionals a few years ago when manufacturers such as Ricoh developed digital cameras with built-in GPS chips. The cameras tag each photo with GPS coordinates of the picture’s location, along with time and date.

Documentation for disaster aid

On August 27, 2011, Hurricane Irene skirted the U.S. East Coast, leaving a trail of damage from Florida to New England. With an intensity reaching Category 1, Irene ranks among the costliest storms in U.S. history. Located east of the Chesapeake Bay, Accomack County, Va., was spared the brunt of the storm. Although many low-lying areas across the county were under water, no lives were lost, and property damage was not severe.

Having weathered many hurricanes previously, the county was prepared to deal with Irene and the aftermath. Its Public Safety Department’s Emergency Management Division spearheaded disaster preparation activities as Irene approached. One of those efforts positioned Accomack County to quickly gather the information needed to qualify for federal disaster assistance after the storm.

Beginning in 2007, the agency used government grants to purchase GPS-Photo Link photo-mapping software from Thornton, Colo.-based GeoSpatial Experts and nine GPS-enabled Ricoh cameras. The software automatically correlates coordinates from hand-held GPS units and digital photographs. It maps photo locations on GIS layers and digital maps, and then creates a variety of reports.

The cameras also can record attributes of items being photographed. A keypad on the camera allows the photographer to enter information or select from pre-populated drop-down lists. The attribute data is permanently attached to its associated photo.

“We bought the cameras with the idea they would be deployed for damage assessment after storms and other incidents,” says Jason Loftus, Accomack public safety director. “But we also recognized operational uses to collect information for other applications.”

Accomack used the GPS cameras and photo-mapping software to capture information after several isolated emergency incidents, but Hurricane Irene was the first emergency that required their use county-wide, and the information was helpful in applying for federal disaster assistance. “We’re responsible for getting property damage data to the state within 72 hours, which means we need boots on the ground in 24 hours,” Loftus says.