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Technology Plays an Increasing Role in Emergency Management

Microsoft Disaster Response’s chief technology officer discusses the use of tech in emergency response.

by / June 26, 2014
Technology is at the heart of many emergency operations centers. In this image, the San Antonio and Bexar County, Texas, EOC bustles with activity in anticipation of Hurricane Ike in September 2008. Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA

Technology is beginning to dominate many aspects of the emergency management profession. This is particularly evident during disaster response. Today we have a number of large technology companies that offer their software or services for larger scale disasters. Chief technology officer for Microsoft Disaster Response, Tony Surma, answered questions about technology’s use in emergency management.
Surma is responsible for the worldwide team and program at Microsoft focused on delivering technologies and technical assistance to communities, responders and customers both in response to natural disasters and in support of proactive resiliency efforts. He has been a part of the Microsoft Disaster Response team from the start — first as a volunteer global coordinator for solutions builds and deployments in time of disaster response and, more recently, as the lead for the program. Between response efforts, his focus is on building proactive partnerships and cross-organization initiatives, such as Humanitarian Toolbox, to operationalize innovations for use during response and leverage trends in technology and solution development to the benefit of response organizations and community readiness.

Surma answered the following questions in writing.

Where do you see technology being used today to advance the different missions of the emergency management community?

The role of technology in emergency management is to connect, inform and ultimately save the lives of those impacted by disasters. Technology restores connectivity to impacted areas so that governments can communicate with citizens and people can find their loved ones. Technology enables responders to coordinate rescue missions and work efficiently from the minute they arrive in a disaster zone, and helps businesses recover so communities can begin to rebuild faster. Lastly, after and in between incidents, technology helps us analyze, track and study natural disasters so that we can always be learning and developing better solutions — and prepare to save more lives.

How is the cloud impacting emergency management?

The cloud has been transformational for preparation and management of disaster responses. Disasters can knock out or overload local infrastructure, making access to data and communication systems nearly impossible. The cloud works around this challenge because data is stored and kept accessible far from the disaster zone. The cloud can also be quickly scaled depending on traffic and volume, so local agencies’ online presence after a disaster is secure from outages. For example, we help nonprofits and local agencies use the Microsoft cloud, Azure, with our ReadyReach portal solution, which allows sharing logistics quickly and broadcasting information to citizens, as well as informing those outside the disaster zone about ways they can help.

How is Microsoft trying to be proactive versus reactive when it comes to disasters?

The way we respond after a natural disaster is crucial, whether within the first few minutes or the months of rebuilding that follow. However, Microsoft Disaster Response emphasizes that the best disaster response begins before a disaster happens. As part of disaster preparedness, we are always learning from past experiences, building on solutions that worked and growing our network of partnerships so that all of these give responders what they need when disasters happen.

There is the concept of What’s In My Back Yard (WIMBY)? Explain that concept and how it works with disasters and emergency management.

Rather than viewing disaster response as everyone trying to individually have 100 percent of what they need ready to go for themselves, we should think of WIMBY as preparation built from neighbors helping neighbors, sharing resources and being empowered to be first responders for each other. Emphasizing community is a key way to scale disaster response and preparedness to a backyard level, and communities should work together with emergency managers to jointly build resiliency before disaster strikes.

What solutions are out there today to obtain information faster and distribute it to the correct people and organizations at the right point in time?

This reminds me of a really powerful statement made by the Red Cross in its World Disasters Report: When disaster strikes, access to information is “just as important as food and water” and is an increasing critical need.

The best examples of Microsoft getting solutions out there to fulfill critical needs are the times we have partnered with others to bring a solution that directly addresses the challenge. Let me give you a few examples: Microsoft was one of the partnering entities with the government of Luxembourg to develop, a satellite that can be rapidly deployed to a disaster zone within hours in order to bring high-quality Internet connectivity and low-bandwidth versions of Skype and Lync to areas where regular Internet connections have been downed. This satellite has been used successfully during Typhoon Haiyan, as well as by the World Food Programme in humanitarian situations such as the food crises in Sudan and Mali.

We were also involved with the deployment of another innovative connectivity solution during Typhoon Haiyan: TV White Space. We partnered with the Philippines government to leverage unused television channels, known as TV White Space, to enable connectivity in areas that lost Internet. Using TV White Space, Microsoft was able to provide Skype capabilities to the government and nongovernment agencies coordinating relief efforts, and citizens impacted by the Typhoon were able to use TV White Space Skype access to reunite with loved ones.

What role do you see big data playing in the future in regard to emergencies and disasters?

As greater volumes of data are generated and gathered during disaster response efforts, there is greater opportunity for research, analysis and visionary ways to build upon key lessons learned. As we are increasingly able to collect and extract more detailed assessments, we can proactively act before the next disaster. Working with our industry partners to build effective and collaborative ways to mine data, including social media, both during disasters and afterward is an important focus for us.

There are silos of data that are not being shared across the disaster enterprise today, because the right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing in trying to help. What solutions do you see out there now that can help?

To us, it’s about asking, “What role can technology play in improving logistics?” not asking “What role can Microsoft play?” When it comes to logistics, there needs to be a free flow of data during disaster response so that all people can access the information and play a part. We are talking about reconnecting loved ones, getting clean water where it needs to be, directing people to safety, and other tasks that transcend ownership. This is not an area to be competitive or closed to other organizations and businesses, which is why all of Microsoft’s efforts involve building partnerships and sharing data, infrastructure and resources.

What is the future for information management during disaster response?

With the progressive, real-time open sharing of data during disasters, we expect to see a shift and rewiring of how disaster response is managed. Today we have phone calls, situation reports that come a day later, and a variety of data sources we rely upon to make critical decisions. An analogy I often use is the stock market. Think about an old-world model where you found out a stock’s price a day later in the newspaper compared to today’s integrated, immediate access that delivers the data needed to make important decisions nearly simultaneously to all involved. I see the future of disaster response similarly, that there will be a transformation in the way agencies exchange critical data in an open and real-time manner and make it available to people whose livelihood — and lives — rely upon it.

Eric Holdeman Contributing Writer

Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.

He can be reached by emailTwitter and Google+.

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