During Hurricane Sandy’s landfall in the U.S. and the time immediately after it, about 15 million search queries were made through Google about the storm. In contrast, the Hurricane Sandy pages on FEMA.gov were viewed fewer than 1 million times — a DHS report put the total page views at about 740,000. While important and even life-saving information is housed on government websites, the way it’s posted can impact how quickly and easily platforms like Google can locate and highlight the data. Technology leaders told members of Congress in June that posting emergency-related information online in open, machine-readable formats is necessary for allowing it to be quickly disseminated to the public. But what does that really mean for emergency managers?
Nigel Snoad, product manager for crisis response and civic innovation at Google, told Emergency Management how response and preparedness organizations can post information online in ways that make it easily searchable and shareable.
1. Post free text.
Snoad said PDFs and images are the worst offenders. Don’t put text in an image, which requires a person to read the information to make sense of it. Google’s Web-crawling bot, or Googlebot, searches the Web for new and updated sites, automating the information-seeking process. Similarly, Bing has four crawlers that handle different search needs. These Web crawlers search and collate the information, allowing for the search engine sites to make use of it. “A machine-readable format allows us to structure the data and use it in a really relevant way,” Snoad said.
While PDFs that have text in them are discoverable, PDFs that contain images or PDFs of maps make the information difficult to share.
In written testimony to a House Homeland Security subcommittee, Matthew Stepka, Google vice president of technology for social impact, advised publishing alerts using open Web formats like Atom and RSS. In addition, live feeds can be published using the Common Alerting Protocol, GeoRSS for encoding location information and KML for maps. This makes the data available to Google — and other search engines — and its tools within seconds of publication.
“When we set up our Hurricane Sandy crisis map, we had to spend time copying and pasting information about public hazards from a PDF,” Stepka said. “After we did so, the data quickly became obsolete, and we had to ask for an updated version.”
2. Don’t lock up data in licenses.
Snoad said they see many websites that say the information is not for commercial use, cannot be distributed and/or is fully copyrighted — even with emergency data. “During a crisis this doesn’t make much sense,” he said. Government agencies and organizations should consider how they want their information to be used; choose a data license that allows the information to be reused in a way that helps the public and allows for wide distribution. “Having the data available via an open license means someone like Google or any other company or citizens can take it and share it and make it really useful for everybody else,” Snoad said.
A PDF that a user downloads or views from a website that is vague about reuse also isn’t helpful. “A lot of people will do the right thing and use it appropriately, but if it’s an emergency evacuation notice that’s attached to a page that says ‘copyright, not allowed to copy this information,’ that’s just kind of silly,” Snoad said. “People need to be thoughtful about who the users are.”
3. Use open, commercial tools to share and save data.
Even if information is published in a way that allows for easy reuse and machine readability, the servers that store the data may crash during an emergency. “You don’t want your evacuation zone maps to be on a server that gets overwhelmed by the public trying to look at it — that can cause a tragedy unfortunately,” Snoad said. He recommends using open, commercial tools to share important messages. This includes posting on social media sites, saving data in the cloud and publishing data on open mapping systems.
And what are the benefits to emergency managers who follow this guidance? Google seeks to consolidate and discover relevant information for users. “It’s our core mission to organize information and make it accessible and useful during a crisis,” Snoad said. “Information is absolutely critical; it’s lifesaving — and not just for first responders but for citizens.”
The data helps power tools like Google’s Crisis Maps, while helping search engines highlight useful information for citizens, including shelter locations, evacuation maps and emergency alerts.