Understanding risk: A social vulnerability index for Canada

By Liton Chakraborty, Robin Bourke, and Matthew Godsoe

Public Safety Canada is in the process of developing a national social vulnerability index for equity-informed emergency preparedness and disaster risk reduction programs.

Contribution to understanding risk in Canada

Programs and initiatives for disaster and emergency management cannot be reactionary in the context of a changing climate that is causing more frequent and severe weather events. Over the past few decades, collecting and using data on physical exposure to natural hazards and social vulnerability characteristics has been a primary focus for all levels of government and stakeholders to support building community-based resilience programs to climate change, and to prioritize risk management strategies, targeted disaster mitigation investments, and risk communication.

As the frequency and severity of hazards and disasters continue to increase, the disproportionate risk exposure of individuals, groups, and communities, who are most vulnerable, is likely to also increase. Several vulnerability factors, including poverty, lack of equity and disproportionate risk exposure of communities and marginalized groups due to lack of access to emergency healthcare services and facilities, shelters, transportation, remoteness, and crowded housing, may hinder an individual’s and community’s ability to prevent financial loss, injury, and fatalities in a disaster. To better understand community-wide vulnerability and risk indicators across Canada, the Resilience and Economic Integration Division (REID) of Public Safety Canada has created a data and analytical repository for social vulnerability and gender-based analysis plus (GBA+) factors by developing neighbourhood deprivation and social vulnerability indices at the national scale.

The social vulnerability index (SoVI) uses national census data to evaluate spatial patterns of vulnerability based on socio-demographic, ethno-cultural, residential and economic indicators that represent neighbourhood-level racial/ethnic background, financial resources, special needs population, housing, family structure, built environment characteristics, and other dimensions of social deprivation.

Image: Example of social vulnerability index for Vancouver

The SoVI presents data on the factors that expose socially vulnerable populations in high-hazard areas and helps identify population subgroups and communities that are likely to bear the most significant social burden of risk, and most likely need support before, during, and after a hazardous or disastrous event. The SoVI and GBA+ initiative of REID supports the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 by providing data and technical analysis for a better understanding of disaster risk in Canada by integrating social vulnerability with physical exposure to natural hazards, promoting investments in disaster risk reduction for resilience, and enhancing proactive disaster preparedness for effective response and recovery before, during, and after a disaster. Following theoretically relevant and literature-consistent methods from the Hazards of Place model (Cutter, 1996; Cutter et al., 2003) and the contemporary SoVI model (Chakraborty et al., 2020, 2021, 2022), the SoVI was constructed to present a dataset and spatial layers for mapping vulnerability at several geographic scales (e.g., census metropolitan area; census tract, census subdivision, and dissemination area) with products planned for release at a future date.

Intended use

The SoVI, as a data-driven decision support tool, aims to support federal policy development initiatives in disaster risk reduction, emergency preparedness, and risk management from an all-hazards perspective. Primary users include federal policy advisors and emergency managers who need to know the geographic concentration and distribution of social vulnerability to hazards and disasters. This will enable identification of identity factors, equity-seeking population subgroups, vulnerable neighbourhoods, remote areas, critical assets, residential properties that are likely to be adversely affected by hazards and disasters. The SoVI database will help emergency managers to develop proactive emergency management plans and support build-back better to foster social resilience. The SoVI tool will support emergency planners working at provincial and municipal levels to know populations and residential characteristics located in areas with high vulnerability that are most likely to be adversely impacted by future disaster events. As a data-driven knowledge-base, the SoVI will help build social capital and establish operational and local capacities needed to manage both immediate response and post-disaster recovery efforts.


Dr. Liton Chakraborty is a senior policy analyst in the Resilience and Economic Integration Division of Public Safety Canada. His research focuses on assessing social vulnerability, environmental and social inequities, inclusive resilience, and racial/ethnic disparities in exposure to climate change risks. Dr. Chakraborty’s research helps identify data-driven Gender-based Analysis Plus (GBA+) and systemic inequity factors in policy decisions that support evidence-based policy development emphasizing an equity-centered approach.

Dr. Matthew Godsoe is the Director of the Resilience and Economics Integration Division at Public Safety Canada. He has held a number of scientific, policy, and executive positions within Public Safety Canada and Defence Research and Development Canada. His research interests are focused on scalable policy interventions that increase whole-of-society disaster resilience. Dr. Godsoe is former technical rescue instructor, Search and Rescue volunteer and wilderness guide who spends as much time with his family outdoors as possible.

Robin Bourke, P.Eng., is an Engineering Advisor for the Resilience and Economic Integration Division at Public Safety Canada.


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, 43, 101394. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2019.101394

Chakraborty, L., Thistlethwaite, J., Minano, A., Henstra, D., & Scott, D. (2021). Leveraging Hazard, Exposure, and Social Vulnerability Data to Assess Flood Risk to Indigenous Communities in Canada. International Journal of Disaster Risk Science, 12, 821–838. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13753-021-00383-1

Chakraborty, Liton, Thistlethwaite, J., Scott, D., Henstra, D., Minano, A., & Rus, H. (2022). Assessing social vulnerability and identifying spatial hotspots of flood risk to inform socially just flood management policy. Risk Analysis. https://doi.org/10.1111/risa.13978

Cutter, S. L. (1996). Vulnerability to hazards. Progress in Human Geography, 20(4), 529–539. https://doi.org/10.1177/030913259602000407

Cutter, S. L., Boruff, B. J., & Shirley, W. L. (2003). Social Vulnerability to Environmental Hazards. Social Science Quarterly, 84(2), 242–261. https://doi.org/10.1111/1540-6237.8402002