ANOTHER VIEW: Missing data at the center of the storm

Pari Sabety

Josh Knauer

The quiet crisis at the center of the chaos following the natural disasters in the United States in 2005 was a total breakdown of already inadequate local data and information systems. With an army of public and private sector volunteers converging with relief supplies, good information and its real-time exchange were the items in shortest supply. This was especially true in the aftermath of Katrina. Before the system is tested again, it is imperative that we address this critical need.

Accurate, available, accessible and detailed local neighborhood information is critical to coordinating rescue operations, assuring safety and targeting investments to those in the greatest need. Data like this wasn't available for New Orleans or parts of Florida affected by Wilma, let alone most urban areas in the United States that could be affected by a hurricane, earthquake, terrorist attack or other disaster in the future.

This information shortage doesn't just impact voluntary efforts; it is also impeding the efforts of troops brought in to assist in ongoing hurricane relief (relief that will continue for many months to come). In Iraq, the Army's 1st Cavalry Division was called in to respond to immediate danger, eliminate floodwaters, provide clean water, restore sewage service, and deal with solid waste and trash. They are using advanced data visualization software deployed today in Iraq. Conceived at MAYA Design Inc., a research lab in Pittsburgh, the technology uses an 'information commons' approach that enables data from thousands of sources to be combined fluidly and made available for battlefield decision-making.

But here in the U.S., they have had huge difficulties finding accurate, detailed neighborhood data in New Orleans and other areas. How can this be?

The most detailed business establishment data with accurate latitude and longitude attributes is in private hands. Data on the owners of land parcels, homes and businesses in New Orleans available online prior to the hurricane through the New Orleans Geographic Information System went offline in the flood. The standards and geographic units used to identify businesses, toxic-waste sites, schools and other important elements of a neighborhood's physical environment differ.

Three important lessons from this experience must govern future community information strategies.

First, we need to take steps to ensure that vital information on neighborhoods from multiple public and proprietary sources must be made accurate, readily available and accessible. That means we must better invest in helping localities and businesses collect, maintain and share small-area data for better overall planning and response to any change'be it economic, demographic or something from Mother Nature. And we must build the systems to share that data to avoid the problems that occurred with Katrina.

Second, we need to ensure that this information is integrated in a way that makes it available to key decision-makers in real time, when they need it'not days, weeks or months later.

Third, this information must be stored with redundant backup and multiple methods of access so that in the case of a catastrophic event, experts from outside the emergency area can have the 'ground truth' to inform emergency response teams. That is, to make information on our neighborhoods and their vital assets easily available to facilitate response, recovery and reconstruction in the wake of the next natural disaster or terrorist incident.

Accurate, available and accessible information on our urban neighborhoods must be at the center of emergency response efforts as we consider the lessons of Hurricane Katrina and apply them to our efforts to prepare for future events.

Pari Sabety is director of the Urban Markets Initiative at Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program. Joshua Knauer is the director of advanced development at MAYA Design Inc.

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