The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake killed 63 people, injured 3,800 more and damaged 28,000 homes and businesses, including much of San Francisco's Marina district. San Francisco continues to face the threat of earthquakes — and other natural disasters as well, thanks to climate change. These catastrophes can't be averted, but Cyndy Comerford believes good preparation is possible.
As an environmental, planning and fiscal policy manager for the city’s Department of Public Health, Comerford has partnered with the San Francisco-based civic tech company Appallicious to deploy a first-of-its-kind emergency cloud platform to help the city prepare for and recover from disasters.
The technology, called the Disaster Assessment and Assistance Dashboard (DAAD), launched as a pilot project in San Francisco this week for citizens, businesses and government agencies. It is connected with data gained from a Centers for Disease Control funded project that prepares against the negative impacts of climate change through community resiliency indicators.
"When you log into San Francisco's dashboard, you can see a map for all of our neighborhoods and it defines a relative ranking for how resilient or vulnerable your neighborhood is to different climate-related disasters,” Comerford said. “We’ve also included other prevalent disasters that aren't climate related, like earthquakes.”
The concept behind the customizable dashboard is to spotlight readiness — or the lack thereof — and catalyze community action. Beyond disaster preparedness ratings, the cloud-based platform maps and inventories emergency resources regularly and in real time, depending on data. Residents can see which resources neighborhoods are without and petition agencies, departments and community stakeholders for help. Likewise citizens and businesses can specify resources they can contribute, such as machinery, shovels, drills, first aid kits, generators or temporary shelters. DAAD bills itself as a sharing-economy-type tool in emergencies.
According to Comerford, skills and services fall into the mix as well. City and state emergency personnel and trained citizen volunteers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) can post team locations and contact information to the site. The same goes for local medical professionals and certified trade workers.
"From my perspective, looking at the community resiliency indicators and understanding where there are vulnerabilities and where we can focus resources and funding is really important,” Comerford said.
Too often inequities between neighborhoods are invisible and this obscurity fosters greater disparities in wealth, education, health and other social metrics, explained Comerford. The hope is that the tool will at least define neighborhood inequalities in disaster resilience.
“We have a lot of inequities in San Francisco and most of them are geographically placed,” she said. “We don't want to keep perpetuating that pattern."
The DAAD platform can also help with post-catastrophe economic recovery, according to Yo Yoshida, the CEO of Appallicious. He has championed the product as an instrument to rejuvenate local economies using a local workforce. Traditionally, large national corporations are awarded contracts for repairs and rebuilding projects. However, to keep funding where it’s needed most, the dashboard allows governments to hire local certified contractors, businesses, nonprofits and workers.
We really want to create a tool to empower citizens and communities" Yoshida said. “We have created the capacity for people, businesses, faith-based organizations, NGOs and government agencies to onboard their own assets."
Since DAAD was unveiled last July by Appallicious and FEMA as beta software to the White House, Yoshida and his team have worked to put the service to market, first as free software, and next with added premium functions for larger municipalities. When complete, Yoshida said the platform is expected to draw and update itself from multiple sources that include federal, state and local emergency data as well as nongovernment data sets like social media and private organizations.
“We want people to interact and participate in development because this is a community-based thing and it's going to be ever changing and ever shifting,” Yoshida said.
Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.