Data-Driven Disaster Management

 A medical worker sprays people being discharged from the Island Clinic Ebola treatment center in Monrovia, Liberia.

A medical worker sprays people being discharged from the Island Clinic Ebola treatment center in Monrovia, Liberia. Jerome Delay/AP File Photo

The Ebola outbreak has shone a spotlight on how open data can be used in the aftermath of disaster.

The current outbreak – and spread – of Ebola has, once again, shown the world just how vulnerable it is to calamity and catastrophe.  

Unfolding events over the past few years have made this abundantly clear.

In 2008, more than 3,596 individual fires ravaged California, threatening homes, natural ecosystems and lives.

In April 2011, nations were left reeling after the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and accompanying tsunami in Japan disrupted the Fukushima nuclear plant.

And in 2012, superstorm Sandy was the largest Atlantic hurricane on record, devastating homes in 24 different states.

There have been 164 major disasters worldwide in the two years since Sandy, according to Relief Web. Hurricanes, flooding, fires and disease outbreaks are just a few examples of the types of catastrophe that make Relief Web’s list.

Many of these disasters occurred in countries with unstable infrastructures, making them extremely vulnerable to cataclysmic events. But implementing fully developed recovery plans on both governmental and individual citizen levels can help these countries recuperate quickly and efficiently.

And the sharing of data and information among government organizations, community leaders, rescue personnel and citizens is essential for the success of these plans.

We can see this in the current Ebola crisis.

Indeed, there are already a host of organizations busy sharing data and information as the disease mushrooms beyond Africa.

Facilitating communication is one of the most beneficial features of free and open data. For both community-level organizing measures and government sanctioned preparedness actions, communication between all involved parties is key.

On a large scale, this means linking real-time information with aid organizations, government parties and affected citizens. On a citizen level, communication involves connecting citizens with each other to share resources, offer help and keep in contact with neighbors and family members.

A cohesive and well-developed open data preparedness framework allows for the most accurate and necessary information to be distributed promptly in the wake of a disaster, facilitating expedient communication between all affected parties.

How Leaders Can Leverage Open Data in Disaster Preparedness

In the aftermath of any disaster, relief organizations, community leaders, emergency responders and decision-makers spring into action to prevent long-lasting infrastructure damage and reduce further casualties.

With so many organizations and groups of people tackling the disaster aftermath from all angles, coordination and interaction among these groups is often set aside as a second priority.

Yet if information was managed through open communication, efficiency and effectiveness could increase exponentially. For instance, creating a platform that provides real-time traffic information about road blockings and structural damage after an earthquake would help rescue personnel identify the fastest and safest route to reach and assist vulnerable populations.

Brazil, for example, has used open data platforms and technologies to prepare for large events, such as the recent World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. With an influx of tourists, athletes and celebrities populating Brazil’s already crowded metropolises, it became imperative for local and national governments to be prepared should a massive disaster hit.

Pedro Junqueria, CEO of the Center of Operations in Rio de Janeiro, collaborated with Google Maps to draft and implement a disaster preparedness and mitigation procedure that addresses the aforementioned complications and limitations of current disaster protocol.

Junqueria’s project has taken advantage of mapping technology to visualize real-time movement within the city, complete with markers of where rescue personnel and police are stationed, the location of traffic cameras and areas of vulnerable populations, including the disabled and elderly.

The project also includes extensive preparedness measures to record and observe flood-prone zones in the heavy rains that Rio experiences in the summer. With meteorological conditions updated constantly through the use of an open data portal, the Brazilian government is prepared to enter two years of heightened tourism equipped with the ability to identify and reach affected individuals before it is too late.

Citizens Key Players, Too

Open data can be used to develop networks and applications that are not only useful for government officials and community leaders, but also for neighbors, friends and volunteers.

By facilitating communication, open data can help fill the gap between existing disaster prevention and any unforeseen circumstances that arise.

Before a big storm, citizens should be able to receive accurate and up-to-date information about what areas are most susceptible to storm damage as well as the progress of the storm as it approaches.

In the aftermath of a disaster, they should be notified of the safest evacuation routes and directed to the nearest aid centers. Unlimited communication between citizens, community leaders, government officials and rescue personnel will definitely provide the necessary foundation for a resilient and well-informed community.

Organizations like Appalicious are developing applications geared toward informing and engaging citizens in times of crisis. Its app, the Disaster Assessment and Assistance Dashboard, allows residents to ask for help, view updated traffic conditions and identify safe locations.

As part of the mapping service, users will be able to upload pictures of conditions from where they are, and view photos that others have posted. This is a prime example of the kind of innovation that has the potential to completely revolutionize the way communities react to and recover from disasters.

As the current Ebola crisis shows, there is more work to do on a global scale.

Tools that use open data to increase communication in preparation for, during, and after disasters do exist, but for the most part, they are not accessible or extensive enough.

Projects like those undertaken by Pedro Junqueira, Google Maps and Appalicious are enormous steps in the right direction, and should be used as guidelines for the further development of disaster preparedness networks.

To handle inevitable disasters responsibly and effectively, a recovery framework that encourages free and effective communication is key, and open data is the way to get there.

Isabel Runge is an undergraduate student at Brown University; Robert Runge serves on the board of directors at Socrata, a Seattle-based cloud software company focused on democratizing access to public sector data. This article will appear in the fourth edition of Socrata's Open Innovation magazine available Nov. 12.