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Data Startup Geospiza Helps Cities Prepare for Disaster

The online platform pulls data so officials can make better decisions about how to prepare for, and respond to, disasters. It's working with Kansas City, Mo., to find neighborhoods at the greatest risk of fire.

Every year, more cities make tragic headlines as new wildfires raze California, hurricanes batter the gulf and blizzards immobilize the East Coast. Facing these inevitabilities, governments need better than guesswork to prepare for the worst, from preventive safety measures to disaster response.

At least that’s the proposition of Geospiza, a data analysis startup in Denver that aims to help governments adapt by identifying which of their citizens and neighborhoods are most at-risk, and what might be done to help them.

The company shares its name with a bird in the Galapagos Islands, the first species scientists have observed evolving in real time.

Co-founded in 2017 by former emergency manager Sarah Tuneberg, Geospiza has built an online platform that pulls data from federal, state and local open sources — weather outlets, transportation sensors, IoT streams, social media feeds, historic disaster data and real-time event specifics — and converts it into actionable insights.

Baxter Cochennet, Geospiza’s director of finance and operations, said the platform allows users to cross-reference data sets to quantify the vulnerabilities of different populations. By doing so, he said, elected officials can make more educated or efficient decisions about where to allocate resources, who to warn or supervise in the event of a fire or storm, where to direct them, and what they might need after the fact.

Cochennet said Tuneberg was inspired to launch Geospiza when, after more than a decade of experience in emergency management and public health, she got frustrated with the lack of usable, integrated data to make life-or-death decisions.

“She had to rely on information that existed, but it wasn’t in useful, integrated format. It was in a binder on a shelf or a convoluted spreadsheet,” he said. “That was the genesis … there has got to be a better way to leverage this information in a world where data availability and the creation of data is exponential.”

Cochennet said Geospiza effectively launched its online platform in spring 2018 and has started working with municipalities in the states of Washington, Ohio and Missouri. Last summer, Kansas City, Mo., named Geospiza as one of six startup partners in its 2018 Innovation Partnership Program, alongside DogSpot, Homebase, Gridics, Snorkel and Dynamhex.

For Geospiza’s part, the company is working with the Kansas City Fire Department and its smoke detector outreach program, for which the department canvasses neighborhoods with a history of structure fires. By partnering with the city, Geospiza gains access to jurisdiction-specific data on rental properties, older properties, properties with a kitchen, what sort of plumbing they have, and even data on human vulnerabilities — residents who have several qualities that correlate with loss in a disaster. The platform then integrates that data with the open source data it usually uses in its analytical model.

“We’re augmenting our vulnerability model that we have with Kansas City specifically around structure information on historical fires to then produce a new model for them that says, ‘These are the areas throughout your city that are of heightened risk of having a structure fire, so this, proactively, is where you would want to focus your outreach,’” Cochennet said. “And then we provide the ability to track over time, based on actual fire data, is that buying down the risk as we had hoped? So we’re trying to provide insight into the return on investment within that sort of outreach and intervention.”

He said all this requires manual effort on Geospiza’s part, but the company is moving toward an autonomous, independent tool by which cities could assess and implement solutions themselves.

Kansas City’s Chief Innovation Officer Bob Bennett said the city found value in Geospiza’s 90-day pilot program, which concluded in October, and is working on a long-term agreement.

“The smoke detector demonstration was, quite frankly, a proof of concept,” Bennet said. “I anticipate (the platform) will be used in other ways, and I see it being an iterative relationship where, as the folks at Geospiza … come up with new ideas, we will then embrace those, iterate upon them and continue to develop a data-focused public safety program.”

Andrew Westrope is managing editor of the Center for Digital Education. Before that, he was a staff writer for Government Technology, and previously was a reporter and editor at community newspapers. He has a bachelor’s degree in physiology from Michigan State University and lives in Northern California.