RSS feed of severe weather alerts

M2M formats should play a vital role in emergencies, Google says

Government agencies should be posting emergency information in open machine-to-machine (M2M) formats and sharing it with search engine sites to more quickly disseminate it to the public in times of crisis, Matthew Stepka, Google vice president of technology for social impact, told a House Homeland Security subcommittee last week.

“Even today, some important data is not even online at all, but in someone's spreadsheet on a personal computer,” said Stepka, whose responsibilities include Google’s crisis response initiatives. “Government can help by ensuring that important information is available in open, interoperable formats.”

“We advocate using an open and common standard in order for everyone to have a consistent way to automatically receive and share alerting information, to publish alerts securely using open Web formats like Atom and RSS (XML-based languages used for Web feeds) and to create useful visualizations of content,” he said in written testimony.  “With better open and interoperable alerting systems, private actors could interact with government systems to display alerts or maps tailored to geography, vulnerability and situation.”

Most any device can be connected by M2M technology,  including power and gas meters that automatically report usage data, traffic monitors. By 2014 cars may be able to automatically report their position and condition.

Last month, President Barack Obama issued an executive order to make open and machine readable data formats a requirement for all new government IT systems and existing systems being modernized or upgraded. The order expands a 2012 executive order to open up government systems with public interfaces for commercial app developers.

Without an online open format, with open licensing structures, in advance of a disaster, there can be delays getting critical information out to the public, Stepka said.

“When we set up our Hurricane Sandy crisis map, we had to spend time copying and pasting information about public hazards from a PDF. After we did so, the data quickly became obsolete, and we had to ask for an updated version,” he said. “Generally, e-mail attachments can take a few days to process and upload and need to be reloaded and integrated for each update, while open data feeds like [Keyhole Markup Language] only take minutes to integrate and can be updated automatically in near real-time.”

Additionally, many essential public domain datasets are not clearly attributed or licensed, making them difficult to use, he said.

Others speaking before the Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications were Jason Payne, head of the philanthropy engineering team for Palantir Technologies, a California-based information analysis company; Michael Beckerman, president of the Internet Association, which represents cyberspace companies; and Jorge L. Cardenas, vice president of the Public Service Enterprise Group, New Jersey's largest public utility.

Payne noted that emergency information is only valuable if people have access to it. Without power and connectivity, any information disseminated via the Internet and cloud is useless, he said in his statement.  As a result, many M2M devices rely on cellular technology to get their messages out.

“We encourage the subcommittee to explore innovative solutions to provide deployable 3/4G mobile networks, as well as mobile device charging stations, to the public during large-scale emergencies,” Payne said. “We applaud the idea of the FirstNet initiative from the Department of Commerce and suggest that the network be opened up to key non-profit organizations as well as governmental agencies.”

Payne also spoke about the need for data privacy when providing information. Government should ensure that when accessing, sharing and retaining data, “the privacy and civil liberties of those affected by emergencies and disasters are respected at all times,” he said. Although data can empower volunteer efforts, there are unscrupulous individuals who will seek to use that data to exploit and profit from disaster victims.

“Sensitive information, such as names, dates of birth, addresses, phone numbers, social media posts, financial information and certainly medical information should be shared with only those with need to know that information, even within an organization,” he said. “Furthermore, we recommend that sensitive data collected during an emergency should be deleted when reasonably possible after emergencies.”


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