Sunday, July 16, 2006

Katrina IT Musings

Katrina/IT musings

I've been corresponding with a college friend of mine from Caltech, CJ. She did a lot of work on the hurricane aftermath (she's an expert on hazardous waste, and a gazillion other things). I thought her comments would be worth posting. They remind me a lot of Rod Beckstrom's ideas that I posted earlier about IT support following a disaster.

Hi Jim,

I think you phrased an interesting question about the IT community's role in helping.

A smart emergency management person once said that anything is useful in emergency response if it reduces one of the following:
Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity or Ambiguity
which is phrased with the acronym VUCA. The IT community would be more with the "U' part of this from my perspective.

The two places I looked for mechanisms are the
(1) United Nations APELL program (Awareness and Preparedness for Emergencies on a Local Level)
(2) the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's National Response Plan, which defines the roles in disaster management through the definitions of the Emergency Support Functions (ESF) and defines that there is definitely a role for nonprofit organizations within disaster management.

and there are probably more.

Brainstorming thoughts
- Wouldn't it be great if there was one web site or number to call for identifying that you're OK, and that your family could connect with. The population at large would probably not trust the federal government to run a national level information network for reuniting families and notifications for finding people. Our agency has that functionality - we have disaster web site, email address and phone number on our ID badges to let the agency know where we are and what is happening, but there isn't any connection outside. I think only a nonprofit could roll in with that role on a national level with field people with laptops and cell or satellite phone Internet connections going out and getting people connected with a national database and volunteers manning phone lines or bringing phone to those without. Sure, not as important as search and rescue, food and water, but I think it's up there with healing from the incident.

- Any IT setup has to be distributed as we saw so many single point data sources taken out by Hurricane Katrina, with no alternate location for getting same data stream.

- Information management on a large scale. Folks that have those skills getting connected with those that need them during a disaster. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita created more volume of information to deal with than anyone would have imagined. Example -inventory of tens of thousands of chemical containers that are in the debris from the hurricanes, what's in them, how to you safely dispose of them, are they leaking, some in languages like Chinese - and I can think of many. People to help manage these types of massive geographical and nongeographical databases were in demand, and I don't know if there was a mechanism to take volunteers from the IT community at large.

- Our field people talk about the caravans of tree cutting services they passed coming from as far away as New England after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Would there be a place for IT volunteers (folks that don't mind living in RVs, because in a disaster you have to bring your own housing) to come in and help families and businesses recover data, connections and other IT related information? It's later in the response, but could still be part of it.

- The first thing we were asked for from our field people were high quality satellite imagery as laminated maps and notebooks that people could use to figure out the scale and conditions of what they were facing before sending folks out into the field, but the reality was more like 6-7 days for getting images, georeferencing and emailing/FedExing DVD to the field. I've been trying to figure out mechanisms where one could activate a function and have those products in the field people's hands via FedEx on day 2-3 of the disaster (e.g. hurricane or earthquake), and updated as more info was available (e.g. takes a while for the clouds to clear from a hurricane). That could be an international product for disasters abroad. Seems like it means more than hooking up (1) the NASA MODIS natural hazards program with (2) a national electronic distribution to individual kinko's nationwide for production so that each store had to produce that portion they could realistically do in, say, 12 hours, then (3) having them all FedExed to the collection place. The higher the resolution, the more useful the data and the less likely to be given out by the data collector - but there must be a break point.

Food for thought. Keep up the good work,

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