How can the Emergency Management community use technology to improve resilience?

Congestion caused by a road accident, Algarve,...

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Post by: Kim Stephens

David Wild from the All Hazards Blog, recently asked: “How can we effectively engage citizens in disaster and emergency management?”  Read the article for all of his suggestions which include using social media more aggressively and finding ways to give people more skills and power (such as EMT or firefighter training) to help respond during disasters “when resources are stretched.” All of his suggestions were good ones, but I was most interested in his second recommendation:

Start true innovation in the use of technology in Emergency Management. Identify where the rest of the world is technologically way ahead of the EM community, and embrace these rather than trying to replicate them in an expensive fashion. Buy everyone involved in EM an iPad. Employ people to write apps for EM. Give these away free to everyone, not just emergency managers.

The desired result of any disaster preparedness communications plan is to increase the resilience of a community. By communicating risk information we hope to change behavior in some way (e.g., persuade people to complete a family response plan). Unfortunately, disaster preparedness information often is delivered in formats that are generic, static, and impersonal. But new mobile and computer aided communications, such as social media, can provide the most effective means of communicating risk information to citizens ever available to the emergency management community. Apps are an important tool because they can be written to provide mobile, location-specific risk and hazard identification information.  Also, personalized, geo-located information increasingly is becoming an expectation if not a demand of the public, owing to their experiences with companies like Amazon, Netflix, Google and even Facebook.

An interesting example of an emerging technology is the use of geo-located information in traffic navigation systems, described in Discover Magazine’s September issue; see “Future tech: Tomorrow’s cares may finally realize the driver’s great dream: a cure for the common traffic jam”. The author outlines how people’s cell phones traveling in their vehicles have provided data necessary to monitor traffic more effectively.

“Some 4 million phones now report their speed and position to Nokia-owned Navteq along; millions more report to other traffic-data service….Those numbers are sent off in much the same way that text messages are, except it happens automatically, without your involvement.”

Privacy is protected by tagging the data with a random-identifier with no personal information attached. This vast amount of information translates into better navigations systems that can predict jams and route the driver around them.

Within a few years, travel-monitoring services such as Navteq plan to refine the predictive process by turning you into a real-time, on-the-scene traffic reporter…you will soon be prompted to feed the companies information about delays.”

When a driver hits the brakes they will be asked to answer simple “yes” or “no” questions (hopefully designed not to distract the driver too much) such as “Is it an accident?” ‘Is is blocking more than one lane” etc. Once the data is anaylzed by the central computers at the nav companies, the info will be quickly disseminated to vehicles in the vicinity in order to avoid the “mess”. The article even calls it “crowdsourced navigation”.

The expression “Every citizen is a sensor”  is taken literally in this case. I like this example because it demonstrates how solutions to emergency management problems, such as how best control traffic during mass evacuations, could be aided through the use of technologies developed for non-EM functions.

5 responses to “How can the Emergency Management community use technology to improve resilience?

  1. Thanks for this thought provoking post! It got me thinking about actually making a map or an app which would identify the top hazards (maybe even with probabilities) for a particular geographic location. This would need data — maybe it could be crowdsourced from peoples’ perceptions of the hazards in the local community?. Simply identifying the impact and probability of a hazard (vulnerability is harder to assess) might do it. At the very least it would be interesting to compare this with what local Emergency Managers come out with for their hazards analysis (i.e. identifying gaps between public perception and identified hazards).

    • Isnt’ that true? Locals always know what creek floods, how often and how high. Some of these concepts came from a conference at the World Bank entitled: Understanding Risk that that Claire and I attended back in June.
      The one session that had particular relevance to this topic was “Community-Based Risk Assessment.” One of the speakers even posed the question: how can we leverage new technologies to improve knowledge sharing and empower people? One thorny issue, however, involves insurance. If more risks are mapped, and essentially publicized, will insurance companies adjust rates accordingly?

  2. Good point. So I wonder where, if anywhere, “Gas explosion” would have factored into San Francisco hazard analysis (either official or crowdsourced)? I am amazed at how few public hazard analyses I seem to be able to find on the web for local EM agencies. There is one for my old town, Ann Arbor, MI:

  3. I love this website, the information is great and I have bookmarked it in my favorites. This is a well organized and informative website. Great Job!

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