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Boston looks to location analysis to speed fire, EMT response

A new city of Boston emergency response program uses location data to improve the safety of the public and emergency responders by pointing out potential hazards.

Imagine emergency responders racing to a call with an interactive map in their hands that uses location analysis to show them the location of fire hydrants, biological and industrial hazards, and heavy traffic.

The city of Boston is developing just such a system that takes advantage of a growing trove of location data. The city, which has rolled out the system to dispatchers and will soon have it in the hands of first responders, hopes the tool will cut emergency response times and improve safety for responders and residents.

"From the old [computer aided dispatch] system we had a couple years ago, we had limitations," John McKenna, senior fire alarm operator at Boston Fire Department, said. "To go to this now, it's just that much better."

McKenna started the project on his own about a year ago, essentially dumping location data for fire hydrants into a spread sheet to help dispatchers. The problem was that different city information systems stored the location of hydrants in different formats. This meant dispatchers were unable to give responders information about hydrants, let alone other potential hazards. McKenna was trying to standardize this.

Then an analytics fellow working for City Hall called to ask if the fire department was working on anything he could help with. He and McKenna connected and formalized the project, getting IT and data analysis staff from City Hall involved. This allowed the project to go from a siloed spreadsheet to something that could be used by all dispatchers.

The location analysis tool went live the week of March 7. Currently, dispatchers are the primary users. They look up addresses to which responders are called and then radio information about hazards to the response teams. The tool is still being developed, though, and the team hopes, within the next year or two, they'll be able to put it in the hands of emergency responders, allowing them to check data about the locations they're headed to themselves.

Loosine Vartani, a data visualization analyst with the city of Boston who managed the project, said data from various city of Boston data stores, like permitting and assessing offices, is joined using Python and then pulled into an Esri ArchGIS database. This database stores the location data of things such as fire hydrants and potential hazards throughout the city. It then connects to a Google Maps API, which serves as the front-end visualization.

Vartani said one major reason for choosing Google Maps to visualize this location data is that it's so ubiquitous and most people have some level of familiarity and comfort with it.

This is a major focus of much of the city's data initiatives. Jascha Franklin-Hodge, the city's CIO, said he and his team are looking at ways to "break apart giant platform lock-ins." They want to build as much as they can using simple, widely available tools. For example, Franklin-Hodge and his team are currently migrating an HR system from a large Oracle installation to something customized around the open source content management system Drupal.

On the emergency response project, Franklin-Hodge said this lighter-touch approach was a good fit. It takes location data from disparate databases and leverages it for location analysis, something that is far from its original intended purpose, but nevertheless adds value.

"This is a bit of a departure from how government tech gets built," he said. "The normal way is very heavy weight and its purpose built. This project went from idea to deployment in 10 months."

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