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INDUSTRY INSIGHT

Harnessing the power of artificial intelligence when disaster strikes

During a natural disaster, every second counts. To prepare the most effective response, public-sector professionals need the most up-to-date information on hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes or tsunamis affecting their operations, assets, employees and, more broadly, the local communities they serve.

While responder agencies rely on many different sources for information on the status of natural disasters, they continue to face challenges in finding timely, relevant and accurate information to inform their disaster response plans -- in real time and at scale. What if there was a better way for the emergency responders to stay informed of breaking events?

On the front lines of a disaster

During a disaster, those impacted often turn to their mobile phones for information and as a lifeline to the outside world. In addition to using social media to request help, victims also share updates, pictures and videos of live developments at their locations. For example, during Hurricane Harvey, those in need of assistance used Facebook and Twitter to request assistance, which included sharing their names and addresses publicly.

There's also a role for aggregated social media data and other publicly available information, such as traffic information and data from weather sensors, in the aftermath of an incident. Researchers recently used social media data to analyze evacuation patterns in response to the California wildfires in 2018. This type of research could help officials assess how people react when faced with catastrophic events and, therefore, design better ways to encourage residents to leave an affected area.

In short, social media, public data sources and sensors can generate an abundance of information from a disaster zone at breakneck speeds, but when responder agencies need an accurate, real-time picture of local conditions, the information available on social media is often the most up to date, especially during fast-moving events.

Information from social media platforms doesn't replace existing datasets or technology. Instead, it works in tandem with existing tools. For example, if social media posts indicate a higher level of flooding in a populated area than government sensor data suggests, officials may consider reassigning first responders to that area.

However, given the seemingly infinite oceans of data accumulated by social media platforms, how does a first responder or government official uncover relevant information?

Making sense of chaos through artificial intelligence

While there's an abundance of data available online, without cutting-edge tools to distill it, public-sector professionals would spend valuable time and resources manually combing through social media for relevant information.

That type of approach is impractical, labor-intensive, and prone to error.  During a time of information chaos, accessing and distilling the vast troves of publicly available data in real time is beyond the capabilities of humans alone. Instead, it requires artificial intelligence. With AI in place, gathering and analyzing vast quantities of disparate data in multiple languages and formats, such as text, video and sensors feeds, becomes a reality.

AI-powered tools cut through the noise to access relevant data and alerts more efficiently and effectively, providing access to mission-critical information, which allows officials to respond rapidly to breaking events.

And unlike social media aggregation tools, instead of following individual accounts in the hopes of gleaning relevant information, an AI-powered tool casts a far wider net. In theory, anything posted on social media becomes accessible.

The power of publicly available data

AI-enabled technology solutions can help public-sector officials make better-informed decisions when a natural disaster strikes, enabling faster and  more effective responses to victims in need. From search and rescue missions, protection of physical infrastructure and organizing relief material supply chains to sourcing locations of disasters and fostering timely communication with employees to assess their safety, a range of mission-critical activities are better facilitated when relevant, real-time information from the scene is at responders' fingertips.

Using AI to tap into the myriad benefits that public data at scale can deliver, teams across municipalities and agencies can better justify using real-time information alerts to inform their disaster response efforts.

About the Author

Ed Monan is director of corporate security sales at Dataminr.

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