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How information technology is assisting with disaster responses

April 03, 2014

The tragic mudslide that recently claimed several lives in Washington State took the nation by surprise and prompted a national reflection on how to prevent and manage future disasters. 

What does IT have to do with natural disasters?
Some information technology companies target their innovations to mitigating disasters, developing products that can help scientists identify at-risk areas and situations and technology that enables professionals to respond to disasters more effectively.

A recent post by Seattle's discussed types of applications and technologies that can help responders to react more quickly to natural occurrences like the Washington mudslide. 3D mapping resources, for instance, could show rescue teams where they should concentrate their efforts and better understand the areas they approach, the source explained. Adding onto basic mapping technology, Common Operating Picture (COP) gives up-to-the-minute perspectives on the disaster scene, including the location of individual responders. This empowers supervisors with the information they need to better direct resources and safeguard their teams from hazards. Emergency response organizations can also benefit from analyzing the circumstances and events of previous incidents, the source added.

Similarly, Xconomy detailed a number of tech startup initiatives that are seeking to create better ways to prepare for and respond to catastrophes. Even something as simple as systems that provide real-time video footage from within a situation, such as a burning building, can increase safety and efficient action. These are a few of the developments the source identified:

  • The Ping4alerts app displays emergency messages from federal agencies, warning people of danger and helping affected parties to stay informed.
  • Software platform Tomnod facilitates crowdsourcing analysis of satellite photos to assess damage and find missing or problematic entities.
  • Robots can be sent into hard-to-reach places such as the ocean to search for wreckage or collect information about weather systems.
  • Energy devices enable resource sharing for moments when electricity grids are down.
  • Solar energy is being integrated into lighting systems that can be distributed when a calamity devastates an area, such as MPOWERD's inflatable lanterns. 

General technology advancements have disaster-related uses
Other tech firms have created systems that are more general in scope, but offer great potential to experts working in disaster preparedness and recovery fields. Big Data analytics solutions, for example, are often discussed in the context of business intelligence and corporate strategy. However, information resources can lend remarkable insights into where a disaster might occur and how responders can best allocate resources to mitigate damage and save lives.

Analysts can process social media information to help emergency services identify areas that are most in need of rapid assistance or at risk for additional damage. Forbes magazine described how first responders utilized information from Twitter and Instagram to assist with Hurricane Sandy relief. In another case, Translators Without Borders and DHN collaborated to create a team of language experts that could help first responders with non-English Tweets and Facebook posts during Typhoon Haiyan. IT support can also enable real-time monitoring that relies on data mining systems to pull information containing key terms, and IT teams can assist with the creation of crisis maps bolstered by data from remote sensors, the source added. Some of these sensors can be reprogrammed for specific purposes during emergencies.

Beyond large-scale disasters, technology can also help governments and public service agencies provide better protection for their populations. InformationWeek explained how some police forces are using predictive analytics to better allocate their resources and prevent crimes from taking place in the first place. The challenge for these all of these initiatives is developing the right technological tools to turn raw data into actionable insights. Forbes mentioned that companies still need IT support to present information in usable formats, such as visualizations and maps. Of course, industry expertise must always guide such strategies, as technology doesn't offer full perspectives in all situations. As always, IT systems are tools, not automatic answers.

Overall, these initiatives demonstrate the wide-ranging applications for information technology developments. In addition to helping companies streamline their operations and improve their services, IT can assist public service organizations with efforts that save lives.

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