Disaster Response In The 21st Century: Big Data And IoT Save Lives

Chris Wilder

Flooding in Houston, TX during Hurricane Harvey.

Over the last couple of weeks, I was in Houston, Texas working with a Search and Rescue (SAR) team helping to find, recover, and relocate individuals affected by Hurricane Harvey. I traveled with a team from Harbinger Technologies Group (HTG), comprised of special operations veterans, law enforcement, EMT/Firefighters, communications, etc. Within 24 hours of the storm hitting, we were on the ground with two units—water and land rescue. Having been at the tip of the spear for several natural disasters over the past 20 years, it is amazing how the evolution of technology—especially the Internet of Things (IoT)—has matured and is saving lives. Although the severity of the disasters might increase, the loss of life has been greatly reduced by improvements in communications and the distribution of information.

My team focused on three things: 1. Search and Rescue (SAR) locating unaccounted for individuals and in many cases their pets; 2. providing wellness checks on the elderly and their families; 3. help to coordinate the delivery of food and water donations to staging points throughout the region. Based on my experience, there are several factors for why IoT and communications technology saved so many lives.

Crowdsourcing emergency and resource dispatch

In my opinion, one of the main life-saving factors is social media applications—especially Zello (a push-to-talk walkie-talkie application for smartphones and other devices). This application became the de facto standard on how dispatchers and volunteers communicated (one-to-many) in real time to send search and rescue assets throughout the entire region. We witnessed citizens responding to wellness checks for families, grandparents, dogs, cats, fish, hamsters, and even a Bearded Dragon. Using Zello, volunteers could pinpoint their efforts and deploy teams, boats, and supplies where they were needed the most, thereby reducing the demand and pressure put on first responders. Moreover, Zello warned my team and other volunteers about imminent danger, such as a chemical plant explosion, levees breaking, and shootings due to looting—all in real time.

My team and I also connected with volunteers and families affected by the storm via Facebook , Twitter , and Snapchat, asking us to check on relatives and family members, pets, and property affected by the flooding. No rescue or wellness check was too big or too small.

Leveraging Big Data to predict, prepare, and prevent

Even before Harvey made landfall, organizations such as NASA, NOAA, and municipalities were using sensor data, surveillance and satellite imagery to predict not just where the storm was likely to impact, but also coordinate with first responders and law enforcement. This allowed them to identify staging locations, evacuation routes, likely flooding areas, etc., and to be prepared for the worst. Data collected from sensors and meters located throughout the region were mined and machine learning algorithms applied, in order to predict patterns and outcomes. For example, clustering algorithms helped to determine the probability of where flooding would occur, and allowed agencies to devise a set of recommendations for evacuation routes, resource staging, and the identification of locations for shelters along these routes. The more data collected from past incidents, the more insight these agencies are forecast future behavior, using operations such as regression algorithms. This gives officials more detailed insight into potential problems before they happen, so they can allocate resources in a timely, data-driven manner. There is no doubt data mining played a critical role in the effectiveness of first responders which, in turn, led to a reduction in the loss of lives.

Technology and other firms stepping-up to make a difference 

Big storms affect everyone, and big technology has stepped up to help those in need. Firms like Dell EMC, Apple Inc., Google Inc., Hewlett Packard Enterprise and Microsoft Inc. have made significant contributions to relief efforts. However, Michael and Susan Dell personally have set the bar by committing $36 million to help their fellow Houstonians. Although this philanthropy is fantastic, one of the biggest contributions these tech companies can make is to commit to innovation and technologies that directly save lives during natural disasters. IoT and Big Data technologies will continue to help prepare first responders for major storms, enable volunteers to become more effective, and drive a faster, more efficient response to future natural disasters.

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