recommended reading

Google Tells Feds How to Get Emergency Info to the Top of Search Results

Virginia Mayo/AP

Offering relevant information in open, machine-readable formats may be the most important thing government can do to keep the public informed during a natural disaster, Google and other technology leaders told members of Congress Tuesday.

When a natural disaster such as 2012’s Hurricane Sandy hits, federal, state and local government agencies are often the best source for trusted information about the storm’s path or the location of shelters and other services. People in the path of those storms, however, are much more likely to seek information on Google and other private sector platforms.

Google received about 15 million queries for Sandy-related information in the days before, during and after the storm, Matthew Stepka, vice president of the tech giant’s social impact arm told members of the House Homeland Security Committee’s panel on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications.

That compares with about 740,000 visitors to the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Sandy pages, 71,000 visitors to the main governmentwide Sandy page at and about 2.8 million visitors to a governmentwide widget that directed visitors to five main lines of government information about Sandy, according to a lessons learned report on the superstorm and social media released by the Homeland Security Department last week.

If agencies supply emergency information using open data standards, Google can highlight that information and boost it to the top of its search queue, Stepka said. When agencies release information in non-machine readable formats such as PDFs, Google and other companies can lose vital minutes and waste man hours unlocking that information to make it available by search, he said.

During Sandy and previous disasters, Google has frequently pulled vital emergency information into boxes at the top of the page when users search related terms. It has also launched crisis maps and other tools to help pass information to people and organizations on the ground.

Stepka praised the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Tuesday for making its meteorological information and images open and accessible during Sandy.

He also applauded a new open data policy and executive order signed by President Obama in May, which requires agencies to make as much of their information as possible open to the public in machine-readable formats. A machine-readable format means external websites and mobile apps can automatically digest the information and deliver relevant results based on search queries, a person’s location or other factors.

In many cases, releasing information rapidly in open formats can be more important than ensuring that information’s accuracy, said Jason Payne, philanthropy engineering team lead for Palantir Technologies, a Silicon Valley data analysis company that has worked in disaster response.

“In the context of an emergency, holding out for perfect often gets in the way of good enough,” Payne told lawmakers.

Payne also noted the importance of crowdsourced information during natural disasters. In the days after Sandy hit the East Coast, for instance, volunteer students organized online to call service stations in the affected areas to find out if they still had gas. Google added that information to its crisis map, Stepka said.

Threatwatch Alert

Thousands of cyber attacks occur each day

See the latest threats


Close [ x ] More from Nextgov

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Modernizing IT for Mission Success

    Surveying Federal and Defense Leaders on Priorities and Challenges at the Tactical Edge

  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

  • Effective Ransomware Response

    This whitepaper provides an overview and understanding of ransomware and how to successfully combat it.

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.