Looking for innovation on disaster communication

The Office of Science and Technology Policy played host to a brainstorming session designed to generate ideas for using technology in disaster relief and recovery.

lighthouse in a storm

Severe weather and other diasters pose challenges for first responders, partly due to an onslaught of information from social media and other sources. (Stock image)

The White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy played host recently to a brainstorming session designed to generate ideas for using technology in disaster relief and recovery that included participants from the public and private sectors and non-profits. It was the latest in a series of "innovation jams" convened by OSTP in order to fast-track solutions to knotty problems.

One key problem facing first responders is how to cope with the fire hose of information coming from mainstream media and personal accounts on social media.

The Federal Emergency Management Association maintains a small digital engagement team to monitor social media for trends that might indicate need, but it's nothing like a virtual 911. The American Red Cross has trained about 160 digital volunteers that can exchange information across social networks in times of crisis, a service launched in the wake of Hurricane Irene in 2011.

According to Wendy Harman, director of information management at the American Red Cross, adding digital volunteers is a slow process because the organization's social media staff is stretched thin and it's hard to find time for training.

Harman, who was at the OSTP event, collaborated on a project that has the potential to help organize digital information in a crisis. The group developed a rapid prototype of a system that automatically identifies and tags information related to a particular disaster, whether it comes from news organizations or social media feeds. The idea is to give responders on the ground a picture of what's happening. Such an idea is useful, Harman said, because of the problem of trying to provide structure to the unstructured data flow of social media. The Red Cross does some of the same work in their digital center. "We're not an individual response organization, but we can pick up trends and see gaps in service," she said.

Molly Turner, director of public policy at the online vacation rental network Airbnb, said the session was more like a San Francisco hackathon than a government event. "It was very informal, with the least amount of talking-at I've ever received." Senior officials from FEMA, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Health and Human Services participated in brainstorming sessions. "They provided Play-Doh, origami, toothpicks, and glue," Turner said. "They knew that some people like to visualize and physically prototype things as they brainstorm."

Turner worked on a plan tentatively called Disaster Relief Innovation Vendor Engine (DRIVE), which would aggregate links to providers of needed goods and services for disaster victims. The idea is to bring together services that people might already use, such as travel sites, social networks and shopping sites to direct services to people in need. "We recognize that it's hard to create new habits after a disaster. It's more effective to rely on existing habits and existing platforms," she said. The idea is an outgrowth of a service provided by Airbnb during Hurricane Sandy, when it organized members who wanted to donate unused lodging to people seeking shelter.

The effort also produced a prototype for a platform to let disaster survivors who need medicine or power for an electric-powered medical device communicate their needs to disaster responders, who can tap into transportation networks to make deliveries.

These sessions are a signature of Chief Technology Officer Todd Park, who has tried to bring a startup mentality to government in his time at the White House. Harman said it was "luxurious to spend a day brainstorming like that," noting that non-profits typically can't afford to convene these kind of events.

The investment in the meet-up could pay off, if stakeholders follow through on promised innovations that could filter back into the public sector. According to Turner this is already happening – she's been emailing with her collaborators to push her DRIVE project forward.