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Big Data, Bigger Dashboards: A Story of Denver’s Situational Awareness Tool

By Benjamin Danile

With a daily population of over a million, a lot happens in Denver in a day. All those people can make traveling a pain, which is why I plan my commute using a mapping app like Waze or Google Maps. These applications, which map the best way to take based on current traffic and road conditions, can make life easier or can lead us astray - like when I am running late for brunch, and my directions tell me to take Colfax, but it turns out to be closed because of the Colfax Marathon.

Apps like these are limited in the information they have and how often they are updated, which is fine when you are trying to beat the morning rush to a coffee shop. However, if you are an ambulance trying to get to an emergency or a city official during a disaster, having accurate information in real-time can be the difference between life and death.

That is where we meet the city’s Situational Awareness Tool.

Situational Awareness Tool dashboard

In 2015, Denver’s Office of Emergency Management and Office of Special Events identified the need for a tool that compiles and displays data to help manage situations faster and allow for better-informed decision-making. This sparked the Technology Services department to create the Situational Awareness Tool, which pulls data that exist in different places and displays the info on interactive dashboards. This makes data easier to monitor, and the info is tailored to meet the needs of the various city agencies that use the tool.Screenshot of traffic accident section of the Situational Awareness Tool dashboard

  • Public Safety agencies (i.e., Police, Fire, Emergency Medical Service) use it to monitor their emergency vehicles and see what might impact them getting to a scene, allowing them to avoid delays and arrive at emergencies faster. They can also look at an affected area to identify the impact on the community members who live there. This can help city employees quickly locate resources, like emergency shelters, available in that area and direct residents who were displaced in an emergency.
  • The Traffic Management Center, whose dashboard was featured on 9News, uses the tool to oversee impacts to traffic flow. They monitor traffic incidents in real-time and can deploy resources that resolve incidents quicker, ensuring you get to your destination faster.
  • The Office of Special Events uses it to see how residents are affected during any of the 700+ public events that happen in Denver in a year. This helps events to be planned with limiting the impact on residents in mind, so they can be conscious of how that Stock Show Parade route will affect commuters and residents.
  • In the case of a disaster, the Office of Emergency Management, along with all other city agencies, need to monitor in real-time what is happening all over the city to help them coordinate information and resources. This tool helps them know what areas are being affected, so if there is a zone in danger (i.e., Neighborhood at risk of flooding), city employees can communicate to residents in that area and know what resources are available in the area to help those in need. 

The information for these dashboards gets pulled from 911 calls (emergency/traffic incidents), 311 data (residents reporting incidents like downed trees), planned road closures for special events or construction, real-time traffic updates from traffic cameras, power outages from Xcel Energy, as well as other sensors like stream gauges to monitor potential flooding. The tool pulls together all this disparate data and displays it in dashboards that are customized to show data that is most relevant to the department using it. 

In the future, the tool will be designed to have interactive maps for public use, allowing residents to see how events, monitor outages or emergencies are impacting their area, and locate critical resources like a hospital or shelter. As the City of Denver continues to innovate its technology to make our lives better, we might rethink where we get our information and the role of local government in our daily lives. One day we might look to the Situational Awareness tool to find out what is happening in our neighborhood or on our commute.

Screenshot of Situational Awareness Tool Incident Map 

Denver’s Situational Awareness tool is one part of a more significant effort to utilize data and technology to improve the health, mobility, and safety of all those who live, work, and play here (read more about Denver Smart City) These efforts ensure that Denver does not purely grow in size, but also quality of life. So maybe one day, when technology has advanced, and our city grows “smarter,” you can enter your destination in your car then sit back and relax while your autonomous vehicle takes the wheel.