Developing a Socio-economic Dashboard with Real-time Natural Hazard Data

By Heather McGrath, Vincent Decker, France Labrecque, Zachary Nick, Besjana Osmenaj

The need for situational awareness

During a disaster, identifying areas where emergency response and support are needed most is challenging. Online tools to support emergency response are not new, but the COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated the benefit of having access to such decision-making aids. Research into automated tools to support risk reduction strategies and to support response for natural and cascading hazards has accelerated as a result of the global pandemic (Quigley et al., 2020). One example is the dashboard created and first shared Jan 22, 2020 from John Hopkins University (Dong et al., 2020). In Canada, the COVID-19 Situational Awareness Dashboard was developed jointly between several federal organizations and is updated daily to illustrate the trends of the pandemic over time and shows how the situation in Canada is evolving (Government of Canada, 2020).

To support real-time emergency response, a balance needs to be struck between hazard specific risks, the changing situation and parameters (i.e. protocols), and response activities (Quigley et al., 2020). This involves both how operations are dispatched and with the assemblage of evacuees to safe temporary housing/shelter locations. Along with information about the spatial extent and the magnitude of the hazard, knowledge of the population at risk is important to support emergency response operations. Chakraborty et al. (2020) developed an index of 49 theoretically important indicators that span socio-economic, demographic, and ethnic classes in relation to Canadians’ flood risk.

Creating a common operational picture

In this work, the problem of how to support emergency response operations during a pandemic was addressed by developing an online tool that presents a common operational picture (COP). This COP is a statistically enabled, integrated, dynamic, explorable WebGIS dashboard that uses interconnected widgets which provide indicators (such as demographic profiles and counts of population) through selections and filters in order to provide necessary information during an event. Primary source and authoritative data and is accessed by web services and delivers the most current information.

Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) and Statistics Canada (StatCan) jointly developed this COP. Both departments have a history of supporting emergency response activities. At NRCan, the Canada Centre for Mapping and Earth Observation’s (CCMEO) Emergency Geomatics Service (EGS) has been providing near-real time information during ice breakup and flood events through exploitation of Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellite imagery since 2011. SAR is particularly useful due to its ability to differentiate water from dry land, and its ability to penetrate cloud cover, regardless of the time of day or night. Since the 2016 forest fires in Fort McMurray, StatCan has been supporting emergency response, crafting statistical portraits of whom and which places of the region were most vulnerable.

Data layers: Socio-economic, hazard, and essential facilities

The data layers for this dashboard are organized into three categories: socio-economic, hazard, and essential facilities. Data is available as thematic layers and charts/graphs.

In the socio-economic category, users can view information about the population, including age, income, number of children, language spoken, etc. and factors that lead to vulnerable infrastructure such as housing structural type and construction period. These indicators align with those suggested by the Canadian Red Cross (one of the beta-testers of this dashboard) for support of their operations and those suggested by Chakraborty et al. (2020). By having access to these population indicators during an event, response plans can be devised that are customized to best fit the needs of the population living in and around the hazard areas. The last set of data in the socio-economic group, all of which is available from the 2016 Canadian Census, are details on the type and count of housing structures, age and suitability. Often the specific number of inhabitants of a given building is unknown, but knowledge of the occupancy type (single family, duplex, apartment, etc.) and the suitability status (according to the National Occupancy Standard (NOS)) provide information on the size and whether the dwelling has enough bedrooms for the size and composition of the household.

The hazard information includes current earth observation derived maps of flood and ice from EGS. Data from NRCan Canadian Forest Service displays active/current fires, fire danger areas and hotspots. Hurricane tracking from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is also presented to allow visualization of forecast hurricane tracks and cones of uncertainty.

The final group, essential facilities, includes curated data such as police stations, fire stations, and schools. StatCan’s Open Database of Health Facilities (ODHF) provides locations of hospitals, ambulatory health services, and nursing and residential care facilities. These datasets provide valuable information for setting up shelters, including proximity to closest facilities for health care. Provincial transportation network data, via 511 services, provides details on road closures, incidents, and roadworks for identifying safe routes for traffic. As well, traffic camera services monitoring many major roadways provide a live bird’s-eye view in metropolitan areas of Quebec and Ontario. The hope is to expand this list in future versions , but at present these are the two regions compatible web services have been identified. Lastly, the operational status of radio communication and broadcasting towers is available (derived from Innovation, Science, and Economic Development Canada’s Technical and Administrative Frequency List).

Dashboard design and function

An Esri Story Map series is the main interface to the dashboard (see Figure 1). Using Story Maps is a quick way to build and tell stories through maps on the web. There are several pre-built templates and themes which enable a user to rapidly design a custom and interactive experience that may include any or all of the following: interactive maps, static maps, images, videos, text, links to other web resources, etc. These maps can feature private and/or publically accessible data, and can be styled and customized with colours, symbology and interactive components (for example, turning layers on and off, and clicking on features to identify attributes).

The main tab, Dashboard, was designed as an online interactive map using Web App Builder. This map has been designed to automatically provide summarized data at the dissemination area level (400 – 700 persons) based on the view-extent in the widgets that run along the bottom of the map. A user can change this by either selecting dissemination areas in the map or using one of the pre-configured filter options. When either of these selections or filters are applied, the widgets are dynamically updated on-the-fly. During an active hazard event, bookmarks are pre-configured to particular areas of interest, allowing for quick, consistent, and easy navigation to the extent of the affected area. Users can easily cycle through the different data layers to view the legends and turn them on or off. Standard clicks on the map present attribute information relative to the data layer and point selected. Finally, through the layer table on the right, users can access the Add Data option to add any datasets from external sources, the ESRI ArcGIS Online community, or their own data.

The Catalog tab provides metadata and links to the entire catalog of datasets used in the dashboard.

Survey and Enquête present a short survey for user feedback in either official language.

NRCan Observer’ is a crowdsourcing geographic information project that allows end users to collect and view flood and ice observation points and photos tagged to these points.

Figure 1 Screen-shot of socio-economic disaster dashboard showing Floods in Current year (2020).

The beginning of something great

Developed to support emergency response operations, especially during COVID-19, the socio-economic dashboard presents a COP of  hazards and indicators of vulnerability to support real-time response and planning. The beta-version was available in spring 2020. Currently, feedback from users is being reviewed to improve the application and translation is being undergone to offer it as a bilingual platform for spring 2021.

Our first finding is that the curated list of hazard, socio-economic data and essential facilities datasets described here has been valuable both through accessing the Dashboard itself and accessing the data directly. There were several users with GIS experience who showed greater interest in access to the Catalog tab in order to create their own applications or integrate the data into their existing dashboards. The remainder of users found the Dashboard to provide them with a wealth of information that they previously did not have access to and they were very enthusiastic about the ability to visualize and query the data in this way. In one example, a user was able to identify the language profiles of citizens affected by the 2020 spring floods and was able to send out crews to support who had the appropriate language skills for this affected portion of the affected community.

A more comprehensive review of user feedback is underway and will lead to next steps for this dashboard and the catalog of data.



Chakraborty L., Rus H, Henstra D, Thistlethwaite J, Scott D, (2020) A place-based socioeconomic status index: Measuring social vulnerability to flood hazards in the context of environmental justice, International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, Volume 43, 2020, 101394, ISSN 2212-4209,

Dong E., Du H., Gardner L. An interactive web-based dashboard to track COVID-19 in real time, The Lancet Infectious Diseases, Volume 20, Issue 5, 2020, Pages 533-534, ISSN 1473-3099,

Government of Canada 2020. COVID-19 Situational Awareness Dashboard. Source:

Quigley, M.C., Attanayake, J., King, A. et al. A multi-hazards earth science perspective on the COVID-19 pandemic: the potential for concurrent and cascading crises. Environ Syst Decis 40, 199–215 (2020).


Heather McGrath is a Research Scientist working with NRCan, and has been working on this project with Vincent Decker, Strategic Advisor for Emergency Geomatics at NRCan. The team from the Statistical Geomatics Centre at StatCan, includes Section Chief France Labrecque, Geomatics Advisor Zachary Nick and GIS Analyst Besjana Osmenaj.