States, Cities to Rely on GIS to Handle Crowds of Eclipse Viewers

NEWS ANALYSIS: The solar eclipse on Aug. 21 is generating enough interest that huge crowds are expected along the path of totality across the U.S., prompting governments to use geospatial technology to handle the crowds.

GIS Eclipse Traffic Management

Nobody knows for sure how many people will travel from their homes to see the solar eclipse on Aug. 21, but the estimates place those numbers in the millions. This means that across the US, cities and towns, parks and nature preserves will see unprecedented crowds for the day.

Hotels and campgrounds along the way have been booked, farmers are renting out tent space in their fields for hundreds of dollars a night, and officials are expecting gridlock on highways far from the city.

Just knowing that the crowds will appear isn’t enough to avoid problems created by all of those eclipse chasers. Local governments need to have some idea of when the crowds will arrive, where they’re coming from and where they’re trying to go. Officials need to be able to be prepared for many times the normal level of vehicle traffic when it arrives, and they need to be able to see trouble spots when they happen.

Fortunately, many of these governments have access to geospatial data and services from companies like Environmental Systems Research Institute, Inc. (Esri), which draws data from a variety of sources to predict the flow of traffic and people and to help organizations handle the crowds and manage the logistics of such an event.

Chris McIntosh, Esri’s director of national government and public safety, said that the state of Oregon, where the eclipse event will start, is using its GIS (geographic information system) data to help manage the crowds as they descend on the state.

“GIS allows them to do this very quickly.” McIntosh explained. “The state is using an application called Raptor that they’ve been building since 2010 and they’ve tweaked it for the nuances of the eclipse.”

He said that the eclipse is different from the usual public safety purpose of Raptor because it’s not dealing with an emergency where lives are at stake, but much of the same data is still applicable.

McIntosh said that information on the crowds that are coming into Oregon comes from a variety of sources such as traffic sensors embedded in the pavement in major highways, to traffic cameras and traffic reports. Esri even works with the crowd-sourced traffic app, Waze, to find out where people are going and how heavy the traffic is.

The way this may work is that sensors on I-5 would notice an increase in traffic heading north from California and south from Washington. Planners in Oregon could confirm the increase in traffic using traffic cameras. Meanwhile, Waze would be able to report that a large number of users were navigating to areas near Salem, Oregon, which is on I-5 and in the totality zone.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...