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Tech, Open Data Are Crucial in Long-Term Recovery Following Hurricane Harvey

Data possess a number of useful functions for non-profit and government groups, from determining where to deploy anti-mosquito measures to helping assess how many people still need aid.

Hurricane Harvey has dumped trillions of gallons of rainwater on Houston, causing catastrophic flooding that's reaping destruction and death throughout the city. Recovery efforts are likely to continue for months, if not years, and now as they commence, experts are stressing that open data and tech are instrumental in the long process to come.

The most direct impact of big data is likely to be on damage assessment, a foundational step in distributing the insurance payouts and federal aid people need to get back into their houses, as well as in soliciting donations from the private sector and volunteers. By using geographic information system (GIS) mapping technology, responders can create a quick, thorough and easy-to-access dataset, one that shows stakeholders — from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to potential donors — who needs help, where they are, and exactly how much damage has occurred.

Zack Rosenburg, the co-founder and CEO of the non-profit disaster recovery organization SBP, said this sort of data is crucial to effective emergency response efforts. In the wake of events like Hurricane Harvey that garner widespread national headlines, hordes of volunteers are willing to work hard and work fast, but every minute matters. Their efforts must be applied with precision. If they lack tangible goals, any hard work they provide runs a risk of being wasted. The aftermath of a severe emergency is by nature chaotic, and data needed to form goals can be hard to come by.

In recent years, however, SBP has used a GIS platform called Loveland. Rosenburg says that with Loveland, his volunteers can go door to door, stand in front of a home, answer a series of questions on a device, and feed accurate information to a database in real time, along with pictures that precisely illustrate damage. SBP can then use that data to direct volunteers, and, perhaps more important, to show governmental response agencies at all levels exactly what’s happening on the ground and who is still in need. Simply put, mapped GIS data is a vital reference.

“In disaster recovery, to do anything more than work hard — to work hard and achieve clear results — you have to have goals, real clear goals that are both outcome based and time sensitive,” Rosenburg said. “Any outcome-based time-sensitive goal is a stab in the dark unless you have data telling you what the real answer is.”

Just imagine you’ve arrived in Houston to help. This GIS data can show you what houses are damaged and how badly, down to a dollar amount. While Rosenburg said GIS tech has proven invaluable relative to past methods of damage assessment, some of which didn’t even use technology, he envisions more advancements soon.

“I am convinced that our Loveland technology, while great, could and should be made quickly obsolete by using big data and satellites and flyovers,” Rosenburg said.

Since its founding in 2006, SBP has provided relief in the wake of a wide range of natural disasters, from floods to tornadoes, all across the country. Rosenburg says tech has improved drastically since then. His dream now, however, is to hold a closed-door roundtable with the heads of “a bunch of big data firms, tech firms, practitioners at FEMA and HUD [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development], with an assessment of what success is, and then creative brainstorming about ways that technology and data science can help government meet needs.”

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, steps have been taken toward a more aerial-based assessment by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which has flown planes with cameras above affected areas, circumventing cloud cover that can sometimes interfere with imaging from space. Another private GIS company, Esri, has a disaster response program designed to provide disaster support, which has used GIS tech to identify heavily flooded areas.

Aside from mapping technologies, which have made major advancements in recent years, other diverse uses of data are underway to ease the impact of Hurricane Harvey. Jonathan Jay, a data scientist and doctoral researcher at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, has turned to data to gauge what Houston can expect in terms of mosquitos as it works to recover.

Jay said he remembers stories of recovery efforts being slowed in the wake of 1992’s Hurricane Andrew due to nightmarish clouds of Floridian mosquitoes so thick they made it impossible to be outside. Jay has drawn public data about mosquito populations released in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and recent severe flooding in Louisville to predict what will happen in Houston, and not just because mosquitos are irritating.

“We’re more concerned about mosquito-borne diseases like West Nile virus, Zika and dengue,” Jay said.

His findings have shown that floods in a warm month like August usher in a major increase of mosquitos, if not during the storm, then very soon after. In terms of diseases, Jay said it’s a bit difficult to get all the info he needs, because while many cities trap and study mosquitos, Chicago is the only major jurisdiction that releases its findings. But ultimately, the more responders know about where mosquitos will be and which carry dangerous diseases, the more efficiently they can deploy resources such as mosquito spraying, removing the danger and facilitating faster disaster recovery.

During the actual storm, tech also played a valuable role, especially social media. As Harvey hit land, phone lines went down, and social media proved an invaluable resource, with residents using Twitter and Facebook to alert authorities that they needed rescue or other help.

Rafael Lemaitre, who served as national director of public affairs at FEMA under the Obama Administration from 2014 until January 2017, said that through social media, federal agencies can also use their massive communications reach to direct the flow of donations and volunteers. This streamlining of recovery efforts ensures that those affected by the storms get things they actually need, rather than, say, a surplus of donated shoes or other items they may not be lacking.

Lemaitre, however, was careful not to paint tech and open data as a cure all, or even as something that can save lives when a mega storm hits.

“Tech was constantly at the forefront of our work to keep Americans safe,” Lemaitre said. “That being said, we knew tech wasn’t going to be the silver bullet to keep American’s safe from disaster. We knew that Twitter wasn’t going to keep anyone safe from drowning.”

To many experts, however, open data is an increasingly vital part of orchestrating a compassionate recovery, one that makes the most of donations and volunteers, getting people compensated and back in their homes as efficiently as possible.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.