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By Chris Bousquet

Nothing exposes a city’s limited resources quite like an emergency. The reality is that during many natural disasters, municipalities face more 911 calls than they could possibly field, more ravaged buildings than they could possibly repair, and more residents in need of help than they could possibly reach.

And yet the situation is not a hopeless one. By leveraging the power of data—whether by pushing relevant information out to residents and volunteer responders or prioritizing for rescue areas with more damage and vulnerable residents—cities can maximize the value of the resources they do possess. The successes and missed opportunities in the response to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma are an apt reminder of the value of data in emergency management and the capacity for cities to expand their efforts in the future.  

Disseminating Data and Tools to Residents and Responders

During Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, Houston and Miami took on the responsibility of pulling together information from a variety of sources that would be useful to residents and responders during and after the storms. During Harvey, the City of Houston partnered with Harris County in order to release information like flooding estimates and evacuation routes. Then, during the recovery phase, the city released updates on the status of city services, a power outage tracker, and transit routes resuming service. Similarly, Miami curated flood maps from Miami-Dade County’s website and initial storm surge information from Florida International University’s (FIU) Storm Surge Simulator during the storm and information on city services, transit, and other critical developments throughout the response and recovery.

In addition to curating existing data, Miami’s GIS teams out of its Department of Information Technology (IT) made efforts to gather new, more accurate flood data in the days following the storm. The city had models of storm surge from old FEMA maps, but wanted more accurate estimates of flooding. With this in mind, the city armed nine pairs of staff members from the Department of Planning and Zoning as well as four volunteer teams with Survey123 for ArcGIS, a tool that allowed users to input flood data from their smartphones.

 

Employees from the Department of Planning and Zoning estimate flood depth

 

The turnaround was astoundingly swift: “Within 24 hours, we had more than 700 datapoints,” said Michael Sarasti, Chief Innovation Officer for the City of Miami. “The sense of urgency to use data and technology was really impressive. Irma was a rallying point to use tools that have been sitting there for a while,” he added. The city made this information available in an online map, enabling residents and responders to make decisions using accurate flood information. 

 

Internet of Things (IoT) sensors were also a valuable resource during the response. According to Sarasti, the Miami Police Department used wind sensor data in order to identify opportunities to safely dispatch officers to calls for service.

And to ensure this information reached the largest audience possible, these cities brought data to residents where they were already active—on social media. Houston and Miami alike used Twitter to disseminate information like open grocery stores in the area, shelters accepting residents, the safety of drinking water, the status of curfews, and evacuation orders.

 

Civic Tech Volunteers Spearhead Crowdsourcing

 

To supplement city data, Houston and Miami also sought to capitalize on residents’ knowledge in order provide better information to those affected. Houston started this trend by working with local civic technology group Sketch City to create and disseminate via social media a Google Sheet for residents who needed rescue or knew of someone in distress. Residents were asked to input information including their location, the number of people in need of rescue, and any additional needs, such as medications or wheelchair accessibility. Tech volunteers then converted all of this information into a crowdsourced Google Map, which rescuers—both government first responders and volunteers like the now famous band of volunteers called the Cajun Navy—then used to identify and rescue people in need. “Emergency responders and volunteers were able to go from location to location on the map and rescue residents,” explained Jesse Bounds, Houston’s Director of Innovation. Houston-based civic tech group the Crowdsource Rescue Team also created a Houston Harvey Rescue site where users in need of rescue could input critical information and then replicated this effort for Irma

 

To ensure that residents not only knew where flooding was happening but could also find their way to safety, Sketch City devised crowdsourced maps of all the shelters in Houston and Miami. The maps allowed residents to input the locations of shelters, whether or not they were accepting residents, and what supplies they needed. To complement this service and make it accessible to residents who may not have had internet connectivity, Sketch City also created a chatbot that enabled residents to ask for the nearest shelter via text.

 

 

To bring all these resources together, Sketch City and a number of other tech volunteers collaborated to stand up a Harvey Needs website that gathered relevant data and tools in one place. According to Bounds, “Throughout Harvey, we were able to express to Sketch City what we needed and they created it for us.” On this website, residents could not only input their information for rescue and visualize the locations of shelters, but could also access emergency and safety tips, flooding and evacuation assistance, and emergency and government agency contact information. Residents could also volunteer to help in the relief effort by donating money or working at a shelter or food bank. Sketch City and a number of volunteers then forked the code for this website—copying the source code for independent development—in order to create the Irma Response website.

 

The Harvey and Irma open-source sites

 

Sarasti credits not only developers in the Miami area, but from around the country— including Cincinnati Chief Performance Officer Leigh Tami and South Bend Chief Innovation Officer Santiago Garces—for offering to help in the response. As an example of the kind of ad hoc help offered by civic tech leaders, San Diego Chief Data Officer (CDO) Maksim Pecherskiy built an Irma shelter map for Puerto Rico out of an Airbnb attached to the former Chief Innovation Officer’s (CIO) house.

 

Going forward, Sarasti hopes to make the process for civic tech collaboration more systematic. “We want to develop a more clear process for integrating civic-driven disaster tools with city initiatives,” Sarasti said. He envisions a network of civic tech collaborators ready to get to work at the city’s request. “We want to create those inroads so we just flip that on,” he explained. Bounds echoed this hope for systematization, explaining that Houston is “developing an emergency response package” that will outline processes and civic tech partners for future emergency situations.

 

Houston and Miami also relied on the power of the crowd for additional information the severity of flooding throughout the city. Created by environmental firm Marine Weather and Climate and tech company Tailwind Labs, online mapping application U-Flood allowed residents to input information on flooding throughout their city. Users needed only visit floodmap.io and click on street segments where they observed flooding. Originally designed for Houston, in anticipation of Hurricane Irma, the companies expanded the application to a number of Florida cities including Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and Tampa.

 

 

By gathering information from people on the ground during the storm, crowdsourcing allowed Houston and Miami to collect accurate and timely information. “With crowdsourcing, we were able to get updates in real time,” said Bounds. This allowed the cities to pinpoint areas and people in need and deploy more effective rescues.

 

Sharing Data Across Agencies

 

In the wake of Hurricane Irma, the City of Miami has started thinking about ways to better prepare responders and residents in the days leading up to a storm. “This is one of the primary discussions happening in the community now—was enough done ahead of time?” Sarasti explained.

 

A critical part of coordinating a proactive response is thinking creatively about how data across various city departments may be useful to responders. In Miami, the city’s Fire Department and Emergency Medical Services did just that, collecting information on the location of vulnerable populations across the city that required additional assistance. According to Sarasti, the Resilience Office shared a list of affordable and critical housing structures, the Department of Planning and Zoning provided a list of assisted living facilities, and Florida Power & Light (FPL) collaborated with the city to provide power outage data. Knowing which neighborhoods had higher concentrations of buildings with prior structural problems, power outages, or residents lacking the physical or economic means to evacuate allowed Miami to send responders where they were needed most. 

 

While laudatory of these efforts, looking to the future, Sarasti stated frankly, “We can do better. How we prepare communities that need more attention ahead of time and increase awareness of them post-flood—that’s the next step,” he explained.

 

Facilitating easier, quicker access to this data will be one way of improving emergency response. Following Irma, many news outlets circulated a story about an assisted living facility in Hollywood, FL where nine patients died in the wake of Irma. After a fallen tree destroyed the home’s generator and disabled the air conditioner, many patients overheated and failed to receive prompt medical attention. While the city was looking at concentrations of assisted living facilities to inform response, ensuring responders have this information well before a disaster hits and make it a real priority in preparation will be critical in similar situations down the road.

 

Cities can also expand the range of data they use to inform response. For example, looking at data from the Department of Motor Vehicles could help determine which residents require assistance finding transportation out of the city. Targeting those areas that have fewer registered vehicles for evacuation assistance—or even pairing residents that do not have vehicles with those that do for carpools—could ensure that everyone is able to get out of dangerous areas.  

 

Realizing these kinds of cross-agency predictive projects requires a culture of data sharing in city government. “We’re still getting there on embracing open data in the community,” Sarasti said. “We’ve released things like permitting and 311 data, but have not gotten sophisticated enough on the sharing side.”

 

Analyzing Hurricanes Harvey and Irma can be a valuable learning experience for cities in the path of natural disasters. These events show that data is not a peripheral tool in disaster management, but rather is absolutely essential to effective rescue and recovery. And, as Sarasti explained, necessary to effective data-driven response is a municipal culture that emphasizes collecting and sharing quality data. Things like data standards, inventories, and useable platforms for sharing are not trivial matters reserved for bureaucratic quibbling, but in fact can be a matter of life and death. 

About the Author

Chris Bousquet

Chris Bousquet is a Research Assistant/Writer for Data-Smart City Solutions. Before joining the Ash Center, Chris worked at the Everson Museum in Syracuse, NY and wrote for DC Inno in Washington, D.C., where he covered tech policy, cybersecurity, and startups. Chris holds a bachelor’s degree from Hamilton College.

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