Open data, crowdsourcing, and sharing economy tech take on new roles in disasters

Sharing economy services and crowdsourced tech can help aggregate and distribute aid, housing, energy, and transportation to disaster survivors. Airbnb is one company that's stepping up.

Hurricane Sandy
 Image: NASA

In a disaster, figuring out what technology you have still works, how long it will work, and who knows how to use it is precious information. The idea of "disaster tech" is a vocative of that notion: what works when nothing else does? Last week, at a forum convened by the White House to share commitments from the private sector and to demonstrate data-driven innovation to helping people and disasters, I was reminded of that need.

In a sign of the times, the categories in the program included the "sharing economy" and survivor support, crowdsourcing, open data, and public alerts. Behind the buzzwords, what matters most about any disaster technology is whether it works (from being interoperable with existing systems to being accessible to users), and whether it improves upon existing systems used by first responders and aid workers. If sharing economy services aggregate and distribute the demands of survivors to aid, excess housing, energy, or transport capacity, they can help people in need. These outcomes aren't theoretical.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, some people who share apartments through Airbnb made that space available to displaced persons. In the many months since, Airbnb has made the same arrangement available to other cities stricken by disasters across the US, without a fee. City governments are now looking to partner with Airbnb to pre-position supplies and train hosts in communities, investing in resilience against inevitable crises. While there are legitimate questions to be raised about discrimination or disability, investment in shelters by government, and whether such public-private collaborations meet the needs of all populations in terms of access, these kinds of arrangements are providing additional housing options for people who have been displaced.

Other efforts, including TaskRabbit and Getaround, seek to connect the demand for volunteers or transportation to those in need. These efforts are less proven and will, I think, go through some evolutions over time, particularly the use of carsharing in disaster-stricken areas.

Where they extend into crowdsourcing and distributing work or tasks across populations is also an area with demonstrated, positive outcomes and considerable potential. I learned about the challenges and the opportunities in this area years ago, participating in the online response to the earthquakes in Haiti and CrisisCommons. People can look for and help organize online requests for help, map-affected areas, and work to improve or augment balky hardware or software systems. Sharing pictures or regions for the public to search has become nearly standard practice in some disaster or accident scenarios, from wildfires to earthquakes to plane crashes to floods.

The public can also use systems to report damages or needs, geolocating requests in 311 systems or reporting the availability or scarcity of resources. Lantern Live, an application developed by a presidential innovation fellow at the Department of Energy, will enable people to report the availability or scarcity of gas at stations and for station owners to report the same as well. A new feature in Google's Crisis Map will similarly enable people to make reports, adding the component of citizens acting as sensors to automated means. (See my photos of a demo of a 3D printed electronic tag that identifies an aid worker with color-coded LED lights when activated by a geofence.)

Other efforts on display at the demo day at the White House or discussed by representatives of government agencies or private companies were more focused towards the gathering of data that will help people responding to crises make informed decisions. One specific data set from the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that I've heard mentioned repeatedly makes an effort to track which Medicare recipients use devices that need power. As utility companies and public officials make decisions about which areas to restore power to after an event, understanding which households need augmented power immediately and should be prioritized because their occupants have serious medical conditions makes a lot of sense. Here's hoping HHS carries through on this release, as this looks like a clear area where more liquid data can serve the public good.

Perhaps appropriately, as in a disaster, at the forum I couldn't get Wi-Fi or cell data down below the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. The inconvenience highlighted a serious challenge: nearly all of the technology on display required charged mobile devices, working solid networks or wireless connections with data access, and power to keep the devices operative. In the US, blackouts due to natural disasters or brownouts during peak usage have put a focus on fragilities in the electric grid.

When people lose power, they lose the ability to go online through their desktop computers unless they have a generator. Laptop computers and mobile devices usually hold charges for hours, not days. Generators for cellular towers might have fuel for 48 - 72 hours, but not for weeks. In other parts of the world with less developed electric systems, outages and lack of energy around-the-clock mean that keeping devices charged is an ongoing, every day need. One person's disaster may be another person's every day reality. Innovation in solar batteries, crank radios, bicycle power, and other approaches to generating energy off the grid is relevant to disasters.

As I mentioned in a previous column, scarcity and need can drive productive tinkering in low-energy environments, as has occurred in a rural hospital, where equipment runs on mechanical power. These advances in DIY medical devices will save lives during and after crises.

Many examples of disaster tech developed since Hurricane Sandy were built to empower people to help themselves and others, said US chief technology officer Todd Park at the White House. He and other public officials observed that people in communities affected are the first to respond to disasters. While that does not detract from the responsibility of state, local, and federal officials to help those in need, it does mean that the people who are already there on the ground are the ones who may benefit the most from improvements to infrastructure that can enable them to access information, report issues, and immediately start identifying, cataloging, and mitigating risks. In a crisis, simply letting your loved ones know that you are okay is the first need, and on that account text messages and social media can be a huge boon, as long as connectivity exists.

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Alex Howard writes about how shifts in technology are changing government and society. A former fellow at Harvard and Columbia, he is the founder of "E Pluribus Unum," a blog focused on open government and technology.

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