What will we learn from Gustav?

What will we learn from Gustav?

Stephen Morton/Getty Images (NYTimes)

Thankfully, Gustav won’t be as devastating as Katrina was. The lessons from the previous disaster forced the authorities to put together better evacuation plans, infrastructure contingencies, and better planning in general. Citizens also understood the gravity of the situation better having been there once before in the recent past.

From a technology perspective, there is still a lot that can be done, esp. where mobile can play a significant role in making the organization and communication in crisis better.

As I argued in my United Nations Foundation paper for the eHealth Summit in Bellagio, Italy, mobile can be used in the following ways:

As we have seen over the past many years, no country, whether in advanced state of development or in an emerging state of evolution, is immune to natural and man-made disasters. Mobile will have a significant impact on how we detect, monitor, respond, and analyze small and large-scale disasters. One of the areas where mobile will have the most significant impact is emergency response. The always-on capability of mobile will allow a channel of communication with the populace in an emergency situation. The channel can not only be used to inform but also be used to guide the affected in a very personalized way and in the process save millions of lives. Mobile will have an impact in the following areas of public safety:

Early detection – Just like life-threatening diseases, the chances of survival from a disaster are the greatest if it is detected very early. To gain an upper hand on the crises, the command-center must be in the position to take inputs from a variety of sources – humans, machines, sensors through a variety of channels – mobile, emails, phone calls, etc. By using such an infrastructure of early detection, many serious crises could be averted lowering the human cost.

Data gathering – the biggest impediment in effective command-control during an emergency is lack of data. Command centers are often operating in the dark without any real-time feeds that can help them prioritize and direct resources effectively. By placing various sensors in the impacted area as well as using the available cellular connections as sensor objects, officials will have a much better grasp on “situational awareness”[i] that can have significant impact on planning and execution of a strategy. For example, by having the data inputs of GIS, GPS, wind flow field, temperature, humidity, fuel load, topology, satellite imagery, citizen response, traffic status, evacuation response, etc., first responders in a case of a fire-event can be better prepared to get a quick grasp of the situation and respond appropriately.

Modeling and predicting disasters – Disasters don’t announce their arrival. As such, significant effort must be put in to model and predict behavior of an emergency from disease epidemic to terrorist attacks to wildfires to earthquakes. How are you going to direct an evacuation plan? How would you inform all affected citizens? What if the sensor networks fail? How does one feed the modeled data into a real-time emergency response?

Guidance in Emergency Response – The effectiveness of response is determined by how rapid it is and how good is the communication. By coordinating well with the application platforms and operators, command centers can issue very specific guidance and information to the end-users so that they know exactly what to do, which route to take, how to contact the authorities, etc. The guidance platform is not only for the end-users but will also be used by the authorities as well to coordinate their response by tracking their assets and resources, providing up-to-the-second status, and most important, based on real-time modeling, what to expect in the next few minutes and hours to come.

[i] Some of the ideas discussed in this section were developed during discussions at Future in Review 2008 conference. www.futureinreview.com.