When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and ravaged the Gulf Coast in 2005, Twitter was still a few months from being born and Facebook was still a crawling infant. There were smartphones but they too were not yet real mobile devices.
Still, technology helped provide better communications among rescue workers and public safety officials through ad hoc wireless networks, voice-over-Internet protocol (VoIP)-based phone networks, and solar- and battery-powered equipment that provided police radio capabilities.
Much has changed since then.
“We learned from Hurricane Katrina and the World Trade Center disaster that we needed the ability to communicate between organizations and disciplines,” said Lane Roberts, chief of police in Joplin, Mo. The city was as prepared as one can be when the tornado hit Joplin in 2011. “We had an ACU-1000TM that allowed us to communicate with other command units and other agencies through one point rather than multiple relay, which enabled us to be much more efficient,” explained Roberts. The ACU-1000TM, (manufactured by Ratheon) is neither computer nor network dependent.
During a natural disaster, communications systems are critical to connect affected populations with relief organizations, government agencies, humanitarian aid workers, volunteers and donors. Earthquakes, hurricanes, and snowstorms can disrupt communications at the moment they are needed most. Electrical power lines are damaged. Cellular capacities are congested. Mobile network infrastructures are destroyed.
Roberts and other disaster response leaders agree that technology is transforming disaster communications from data collection to information sharing. A long list of technologies are being used in the United States and globally during a natural disaster:
- Low-cost SMS text messaging, which might be the only technology available in a developing country;
- Line-of-sight satellite systems as a temporary backup system for Wi-Fi;
- Ad hoc wireless networks;
- iPads and tablets that collect data in the field;
- Twitter, Skype, and social media enhanced with mobile technologies; and,
- Open source software for information collection, visualization and interactive mapping, such as Ushahidi, originally built by a community of digital volunteers for Kenyans to report and map incidents of violence they saw via SMS, email or the web via mobile. All these technologies enable people to better assess conditions and target relief in real-time.
“We use the full array of technologies depending on the country and its needs,” said William A. Brindley, CEO and executive director of NetHope, a collaboration of international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) headquartered in Fairfax, Va. NetHope brings information and communications technology to the developing world where response to natural and man-made disasters is made more difficult due to the lack of infrastructure and challenging environments.
During the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, NetHope worked with its NGO member organizations and major technology partners to create a response center at a member organization’s site in Port-au-Prince that still had communications capabilities. They extended Haiti’s Wi-Fi network, setting up line-of-sight satellite dishes from rooftop to rooftop to get a satellite feed that extended Haiti’s Wi-Fi network. Satellite deployment, satellite phones and network relief kits that fit into a backpack have been used for years but are expensive so it’s necessary to quickly get on a more ongoing system, said Brindley.
NetHope collaborated in 2011 with the U.N. and 1,000 skilled volunteers from more than 70 countries with dedicated experience in online crisis mapping to undertake a mapping of social media, news reports and official situation reports from within Libya.
“All this information was crowdsourced from all over the world,” said Brindley. “Information poured in and was organized visually by aggregating data on a map in real-time. It was truly revolutionary,” he said.
NetHope last year launched its Open Humanitarian Initiative (OHI), a data-driven development emergency response project focused on crowdsourcing, open data and big data to put the platforms and tools in place before a disaster strikes. “When a disaster happens, the data will come in and we will know where the hot spots are, where the networks are down, and where the people are misplaced,” said Brindley.
Crowdsourcing can provide more effective aid and real-time assessment of needs, but there are challenges with bi-directional communication, skewed representation, languages and literacy and analysis of data. Social media, an essential component of crowdsourcing, has been criticized for accuracy issues.
“In some ways, social media has been very helpful during disasters. For example, after Hurricane Sandy hit, social media helped generate and coordinate volunteers. It told the outside world what kind of supplies were needed and also the unmet needs. But social media also played a role in spreading rumors. The rumors weren’t true about FEMA – funds were available, ” said Robert Ottenhoff, CEO of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy in Washington, D.C.
Brindley dismissed the criticism, asserting that social media is “actually more accurate, and is self-correcting by digital volunteers.”
Ottenhoff countered that while “social media is self-correcting – eventually — it’s not at first. And, that’s the problem.”
For Joplin’s police department, social media “was a revelation to us,” said Roberts, who acknowledged that the department was “not a big fan of social media.” During the tornado, it was “an effective way to disseminate and gain information,” he said.
“We now have a Facebook page to share information,” said Roberts, who explained that it emerged during the response to the tornado. “Having experienced the benefits of it, we’ve retained it. As a public entity, we have fairly strict policies behind it — not just concerning privacy issues, but about things that might be said that might not be acceptable for public employees.”
The American Red Cross last year launched earthquake, tornado, hurricane and wildfire mobile applications that are available on iPhone and Android devices from the iTunes or Google Play app stores. The applications use open government data to help people prepare for, be alerted to, and recover from natural disasters.
“We noticed that during a disaster, people were coming to our website for information. With the proliferation of apps and smartphone penetration at more than 50 percent, we decided to provide the information we teach in classes and post on our website to be accessible via people’s handheld devices,” said Dominick Tolli, vice president of product management at the American Red Cross in Washington, D.C. “Once downloaded, people get just-in-time information when and where they need it.”
The apps have improved disaster preparedness, said Tolli. User feedback and stories posted in the Apple app store talk about how ARC’s disaster apps have helped people gotten to safety, or saved their life or their neighbor’s life.
When telecommunication infrastructures go down, mobile infrastructures come back more quickly than others, said Tolli, who acknowledged there are still problems that affect the usefulness of the mobile apps.
“We do have issues around the accuracy and timeliness of information we get from some government agencies but some are terrific,” said Tolli.
In a World Economic Forum Blog post titled “How open data can save lives,” Brindley paraphrased English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner to point out the difficulty in finding ways to combine new and traditional data sources through the smarter use of technology. “Data, data everywhere, nor any bit makes sense,” he wrote.
While open data can enhance transparency, asserted Brindley, there are problems: the lack of data standards, APIs and data analysis, as well as openness of data from the United Nations and other NGOs.
Big data has its opportunities, such as real-time location data, demographic analysis and trends and early warning, but it has its challenges too, from privacy and security issues to information overload and the lack of capacity to analyze, explained Brindley.
“Technology is not a panacea,” agreed William McNulty, vice president and co-founder of Team Rubicon (TR), a nonprofit in El Segundo, Calif., which unites the skills and experiences of military veterans with first responders to rapidly deploy emergency response teams. Interoperability between platforms is one of Team Rubicon’s main challenges in using various technologies to improve the organization’s effectiveness in disaster response.
TR’s initial mission was launched three days after the January 2010 earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince, Haiti. “From Haiti up until Hurricane Sandy, we were using pencil and paper to manage our workflow. It was a very antiquated way to manage a disaster response. We couldn’t scale. During Haiti we deployed 60 individuals over 18 days. We could manage only so many volunteers and teams,” recalled McNulty, who said the organization accelerated the use of technology platforms just days after Hurricane Sandy hit.
Using a suite of software applications for integrating, visualizing and analyzing data on a mobile platform, TR was able to deploy more than 350 military veterans who managed more than 10,000 civilian volunteers to help with Hurricane Sandy relief.
TR also uses technology to manage its volunteers and donors, track progress on response sites, map workflows, and scale its response to make it more efficient. On the ground, the organizations partners with for-profits and nonprofits that donate VSATs (very small aperture terminals to provide two-way satellite ground stations) to operate in the cloud when terrestrial systems are down.
Everything TR uses — radios and repeaters, VSATs, and applications downloaded on small mobile devices — requires electricity, said McNulty. “So, we use solar-powered solutions to ensure we always have power, and that we’re never operating in the dark.”