The public can help guide disaster relief, homeland security

INDUSTRY INSIGHT

The public can help guide disaster relief, homeland security

The Department of Homeland Security identifies a loss of network connectivity as a first consideration in planning relief, with being able to share data when communications resume as a close second. 

Hurricane Katrina demonstrated the importance of responders being able to communicate in a disconnected environment. The 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the 2011 tsunami in Japan and elements of the Arab Spring each showed how mobile has become an element of emergency response. And recent terrorist events in Paris and San Bernardino confirmed that information sharing across multiple levels of government and law enforcement was essential in times of crisis.

Response to those events illustrates the evolving nature of emergency response solutions, driven by technology that develops faster than the public sector can adopt them. The mobile revolution, fed by geospatial technology that turned cell phones into smartphones, gave the public the ability to generate and share geo-referenced and registered data, including photos and video, automatically.

Geospatial companies have created apps that allow users to  download maps and report forms into mobile devices, then sync the data into a cloud-based enterprise system, even when Internet access is unavailable. When connectivity is restored, those maps and forms can be fused into a common operational picture. By feeding data from the public’s phones or tablets directly to Google Earth or an enterprise geographic information system, a picture can be created without spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to train a workforce.

The operative word here is picture.  An image establishes situational awareness by identifying relationships to surroundings through visual references, which include terrain or geography and prominent infrastructure. Through visualization, emergency responders can do their jobs more easily, on their own phones or tablets, without understanding geospatial concepts. They get a real-time picture that shows them the problem and locates the resources available so they can make quick decisions. This means geospatial calculations are behind the scenes and collecting data to perform analysis must be done intuitively.

Leading commercial software companies are using agile development to respond quickly to a changing emergency environment.  Most important, they are building modern, mobile, cloud-based applications and platforms that can be easily adapted to evolving requirements and support open data standards that enable the holy grail of interagency data sharing.

State and local organizations shouldn’t continue building one-off custom solutions that are expensive to maintain, resistant to change and perpetuate data stovepipes. Rather, emergency officials should carefully identify their requirements, focusing on mobility, adaptability and data sharing.  Then technology managers should reach out to vendors that deliver the most flexible, open platforms based on today’s mobile and cloud frameworks.

 By leveraging today’s modern, mobile commercial platforms, officials can deploy real solutions that work today, evolve over time and enable cloud-based data sharing across organizations and with the public -- in ways never before possible.

That’s the way disaster relief can work. It’s the way it should work. But this dynamic geospatial participation can happen only if states are willing to provide basic information to the public about places of interest and what data can help in protecting them. And the states and localities have to commit to the public being included in the disaster relief process by establishing an infrastructure of involvement that includes a means to get and receive geospatial data from mobile devices.

It’s the overarching lesson imparted time and time again by emergencies both natural and man-made: An informed, involved public, using social media to provide life-saving geospatial data, can help guide relief efforts by government and private agencies. We can do more with mobile in our emergency response.

About the Author

Scott Lee is the director of federal sales for TerraGo Technologies.

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