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Award-winning app reveals where resources are most needed in weather emergencies

March 10, 2016

Medical personnel deployed to natural disaster area

Medical personnel deployed to natural disaster area
The PIE VIz app is designed to help policymakers identify at-risk populations who may require additional medical resources in the aftermath of severe weather events. Jessica Lea/DFID

When extreme weather strikes, isolated populations often find themselves vulnerable in the face of environmental hazards and limited access to disaster relief resources.

But PIE Viz, a new tool developed by the Population Health Sciences Department and the Biocomplexity Institute of Virginia Tech, could help disaster planners address these risks before they happen. The technology is already generating excitement in the federal scientific community, taking first prize in the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences’ Climate Change and Environmental Exposures Challenge.

The web-delivered PIE Viz application connects national, local, and regional data about excessive heat, power outages, and environmental pollution to their impacts on populations. By providing detailed estimates of the number of socially isolated people per county, it allows public health officials to tailor their response plans to conditions on the ground.

Social isolation can be particularly dangerous during power and heat-related events, often leading to death or serious injury. The problem is often exacerbated because public health officials do not know where to concentrate their efforts.

“The model overlays a variety of detailed information so that users can see the correlations in a power or heat emergency. This helps planners see the most at-risk regions that they might not otherwise find,” said Samarth Swarup, a research assistant professor at the Biocomplexity Institute.

In recent years, climate change has been associated with more frequent and severe weather, from hurricanes to tornadoes. Many of the natural disasters that have occurred, such as Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, have strained infrastructure such as manufacturing and hazardous waste treatment facilities to the point of causing toxic environmental conditions.

“There is a pressing need to understand how best to mitigate damage and exposure during these events, especially for those who are socially isolated,” said Julia Gohlke, an assistant professor in the Department of Population Health Sciences in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. “We envision this tool as a powerful way to identify localities most likely to experience combined climate and environmental exposure-related risks and, within those localities, to identify areas with heightened percentages of vulnerable populations.”

The PIE Viz app was developed to leverage data that will help policymakers and public health officials strategize about dealing with power outages and air pollution under extreme heat conditions. 

The tool allows the user to determine which locations have experienced heightened numbers of power outages between 2000 and 2015. The user can visualize county-level extreme heat and dangerous air pollution histories by selecting a county to view including numbers and locations of isolated persons. Such information can help emergency personnel know where to set up shelters or water stations.

“Making this visualization tool a web-based interactive application makes it accessible to everyone,” said Dawen Xie, a senior research associate at the Biocomplexity Institute. “All the data used in the tool are also linked from the website.”

PIE Viz belongs to a suite of synthetic information applications developed at the Biocomplexity Institute, which are the result of three decades of research in computational platforms, social science, and public health analysis. Future plans for PIE Viz include expanding the kinds of data displayed, adding more interactive features, and incorporating this tool into the White House Climate Resilience Toolkit.

Dedicated to its motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), Virginia Tech takes a hands-on, engaging approach to education, preparing scholars to be leaders in their fields and communities. As the commonwealth’s most comprehensive university and its leading research institution, Virginia Tech offers 240 undergraduate and graduate degree programs to more than 31,000 students and manages a research portfolio of $513 million. The university fulfills its land-grant mission of transforming knowledge to practice through technological leadership and by fueling economic growth and job creation locally, regionally, and across Virginia.

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