Home PublicationsCommentary Big Data Means Big Relief for Disaster Victims

Big Data Means Big Relief for Disaster Victims

by Joshua New
Nepal Earthquake

Responding to a natural catastrophe is a logistical nightmare, requiring multiple levels of coordination and communication across organizational and governmental jurisdictions to effectively deliver aid. This problem is compounded by the chaotic nature of natural disasters and the communication breakdown that can occur when infrastructure is damaged or unusable. In developing countries, this infrastructure might not exist at all. Governments have always played a key role in overcoming these logistical challenges, but in recent years, government efforts to support the free flow and use of data after an emergency have proved enormously helpful for disaster relief efforts. Government initiatives to provide open data and support the development of new data technologies have undoubtedly saved untold lives, from the 2010 earthquake in Haiti to the 2015 earthquake in Nepal. Policymakers around the world, at all levels of government, should look to these recent examples to improve how they support relief efforts with data to be better prepared for the next catastrophe.

Open data has likely been the most useful new tool at aid-workers’ disposal, providing emergency responders with timely and accurate geospatial data and giving humanitarian efforts and government agencies the necessary information to make important planning and prioritization decisions. Geospatial data platforms like OpenStreetMap, an open source mapping project, allow aid workers to rapidly assess damage and monitor progress on relief efforts. After Super Typhoon Haiyan made landfall in the Philippines in November 2013, international Red Cross teams and online volunteers collaborated to make over 1.5 million updates to OpenStreetMap in just six days by combining crowdsourced reports from workers on the ground with data from U.S. geospatial agencies and the Philippine government. In preparation for Hurricane Sandy’s landfall, the government of New York City published updated hurricane evacuation zone maps on the city’s open data portal and collaborated with organizations such as The New York Times and Google’s Crisis Response Team to compile and disseminate data on shelters, food distribution centers, and evacuation routes—an effort which the city government estimated reached 10 times more people than traditional methods. Today, ongoing relief efforts for the Nepal earthquake utilize an open data portal called the Humanitarian Data Exchange which compiles valuable machine-readable and timely data from government, humanitarian, and academic sources that otherwise might be difficult or time consuming for aid workers to track down. For example, aid workers can find data on rainfall distribution from the U.S. Agency for International Development alongside data on Nepal’s administrative boundaries from the University of Georgia and food price data from the United Nation’s World Food Programme.

In addition to providing useful data, government’s have played an integral role in supporting innovative data technologies that have transformed how aid workers operate. After Hurricane Sandy hit New York, relief efforts used analytics technology developed by Palantir, a company that got its start with venture capital funding from the Central Intelligence Agency, to predict where the need for medicine, food, and clothing would be the most severe and coordinate response efforts. In Nepal, aid workers saved four earthquake survivors trapped underneath rubble with advanced sensor technology developed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that can detect human heartbeats through yards of debris. And just recently, the U.S. National Science Foundation and the Japanese Science and Technology Agency established a joint funding program to develop a host of new data-driven disaster response technologies, ranging from a context-aware information delivery system to olfactory search algorithms that can detect pollutants or other harmful agents from networked sensors in the air and water.

To be sure, the private sector can also produce valuable data to help after an emergency. When the devastating Tohoku earthquake and tsunami struck Japan on March 11, 2011, the Japanese government asked car manufacturers such as Toyota and Honda to activate GPS tracking on their customers’ vehicles. These companies used this trip data, which indicated where drivers were turning around due to road damage, accidents, and other obstructions, to create accurate maps of navigable roads for relief workers and people looking for a safe route just 24 hours after the disaster struck.

These types of data tools in the hands of emergency responders have proven to be incredibly helpful and offer life-saving benefits, and ongoing government support for these efforts have directly contributed to their success. Recognizing this, policymakers should identify ways to proactively support data technologies useful in disaster relief efforts to solve potential problems ahead of time, rather than during an emergency. For example, much of the geospatial data critical to crisis mapping efforts comes from government agencies, but without legally binding commitments for federal agencies to publish open data, this crucial data source could be lost to aid workers. On a local level, state, and municipal policymakers should follow New York City’s example and build robust open data portals populated with information that could help their residents during a crisis. Nations with the resources to do so should continue investing in advanced research and development for data projects that could have life-saving applications. As new data-driven methods emerge, such as the use of granular cell-phone data to track the spread of Ebola in West Africa, people may be afraid that these unfamiliar technologies might pose a privacy risk and thus be reluctant to support them. For example, countries with stringent privacy rules might not be able to replicate the successful emergency car tracking system used in Japan. However, policymakers have a responsibility to carefully consider how technology’s life-saving potential could easily outweigh any privacy risks.

While natural catastrophes and other disasters may be inevitable, data has proven an invaluable tool for reducing the damage they cause. With policymakers’ support, there is no telling how many more lives data could help save.

Image: Hilmi Hacaloğlu.

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