Hurricane Irma, a powerful Category 5 hurricane, swept through the Caribbean in early September on a trajectory that carried it up through Florida and Georgia, bringing heavy winds and rain that spurred partial evacuations in both of those states.
As the storm struck, civic-minded technologists in those areas were planning events for the National Day of Civic Hacking on Sept. 23, during which participants gathered nationwide to collaborate on projects that use technology to solve government challenges. Due to the chaos sown by Irma, Organizers in both Miami and Savannah, Ga. were forced to delay their events, pushing them until the weekend of Friday, Oct. 20. This was, of course, not ideal. An unintended benefit, however, is that both events have pivoted to focus on disaster recovery, using the local response to the recent hurricane as a case study.
These two events are being coordinated by Code for Miami and Open Savannah in their respective cities, both of which are members of Code for America, a national nonprofit and nonpartisan group that makes government services simpler and easier to use for constituents through tech. In Code for America parlance, member groups are called brigades.
Carl Lewis, founder and brigade captain for Open Savannah, said the decision to pivot the focus was uncomplicated, given that before Irma hit, his group had been slated to create tech-based solutions for strengthening local neighborhood associations, which in Savannah tend to share civic goals but rarely collaborate. The hurricane, however, drew attention to more pressing concerns. For example, when Irma was far from Georgia, rumors circulated that residents should evacuate immediately, but the actual directive was to wait until two days later. The misunderstanding was problematic.
“The rumors were worse than normal, particularly because you had people evacuating and they were going to places where the storm was actually worse because of the way it changed trajectories,” Lewis said.
This minor chaos gave Lewis and his cohort a clear target: using tech to control rumors and disseminate better information. The exact projects that will be created at Open Savannah’s upcoming event, obviously can’t be predicted, but the group will now be coordinating with local responders, Chatham County Emergency Management. Lewis noted that the work may include crowdsourcing emergency management reports and developing a means of using open data to pinpoint the locations of disabled people who are the most vulnerable during disasters.
Code for Miami’s National Day of Civic Hacking event, meanwhile, was originally slated to address urban resiliency, affordable housing and public transportation. Julie Kramer, co-captain for Code for Miami, said that like Savannah, her group has changed its focus to storm preparedness and emergency response.
Miami’s strong building codes, forged in the wake of previous mega-storm Hurricane Andrew, prevented Irma from causing much structural damage, but Kramer said, “There’s still a lot of room for growth. Now, we know where our weaknesses are and hopefully we can improve upon that.”
One particular focus is likely to be marginalized communities, which often have infrastructure and economic challenges that are exacerbated by storms.
Areas like Miami and Savannah that are directly affected by the storms, however, are not the only places where civic technologists are making concentrated efforts to aid disaster response. Finding simple ways to help residents of Puerto Rico, which was devastated by Hurricane Maria, was the focus of a recent Chi Hack Night meetup in Chicago, where the weather is often a frigid and painful tragedy, but not one as sudden and destructive as storms in the tropics.
At the Chicago event, Steven Vance, a transportation planner and advocate who created Chicago Cityscape, spoke about the value of using OpenStreetMap to help Puerto Rico. That platform is an open source, free map of the world that anyone can edit, and it’s useful in the wake of a disaster.
“Using OpenStreetMap, responders in disaster-prone areas and areas that have just experienced a disaster are able to rapidly generate new maps by having volunteers quickly trace satellite imagery,” Vance said.
These maps have a number of benefits, the easiest to understand being creating a reliable visualization of areas that are likely to be changed by storms. The mapping is simple work that can be done from anywhere there is a computer and an Internet connection, and in its simplest sense it involves looking at satellite imagery and tracing it on their computers to lock it in place before alterations are made by disasters, thus creating a reliable record.
The night Vance gave his talk, he showed the group how they could map an area around a dam that was liable to burst, so responders would have a resource for determining where supplies were most needed. Even those with no tech experience can use OpenStreetMap to help, as the platform separates tasks by difficulty.
“You don’t need the latest laptop or computer to be able to use this mapping website,” Vance said. “You can do it 10 minutes here or there, you can spend two hours doing it, you can fit it into your schedule.”
Zack Quaintance is a staff writer for Government Technology. Prior to that, he spent five years working in daily newspapers, and another five years working in the tech sector. He lives in Northern California.