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.
Some of those travelers would be heading for hotels near the eclipse path, some to campgrounds, and some would just be driving in hopes they could find a place to stop for the event. As the traffic begins arriving, sensors would be able to alert planners where people were starting to park their cars along the road.
As the increased traffic began arriving, state and local police could begin managing the traffic, which could include active traffic direction, signs and barriers to keep the vehicle traffic where it needed to be for safety. According to McIntosh, other crowd-sourced apps would be able to tell managers where crowds are gathering, which would alert them to areas that may need active management of all of those people.
In the case of Oregon as well as several other states along and near the path of the eclipse, they’ve already been using the Esri GIS for years. This means that the system has already been localized and that officials already know how to use it.
All that was needed to be done was to add layers for the solar eclipse path and for the locations of special events. To make sure that state and local workers throughout the state know about the eclipse features of Raptor, the state Office of Emergency Management even made a video about it.
The reason that Oregon and other states and localities in the U.S. use GIS systems such as those from Esri is for handling large numbers of people and vehicles in case of an emergency.
Such emergencies could include the evacuation of large masses of people from the path of a hurricane traveling up the east coast of the U.S., a tsunami or a wildfire in the west. With a GIS and appropriate software, officials can see how the evacuation is going and where the trouble spots are so they can be bypassed or cleared.
McIntosh said that disasters and solar eclipses aren’t the only use for a GIS. He noted that such systems were used for the Super Bowl, for the Pope’s visit to Philadelphia and Washington as well as the Boston Marathon. He said that Esri runs a disaster response program that McIntosh runs, which he describes as a humanitarian effort.
The solar eclipse is a big deal for Esri because if its involvement with states and localities that are impacted by the celestial event. But Esri has also created a way to make the solar eclipse more accessible to everyone with a remarkable website that provides an interactive look at the eclipse as it crosses the country. It’s a must-see for eclipse viewers.
Now, if only their GIS could help us procrastinators find eclipse glasses.