⇓ More from ICTworks

8 Technology Lessons Learned from Hurricane Sandy

By Aaron Mason on May 15, 2013


Interested in joining the conversation? Sign up to get invited to our next event.

The aftermath Hurricane Sandy saw massive response efforts including an unprecedented deployment of volunteers and communications tools. Last week’s San Francisco Technology Salon drew discussants for a conversation on the technology lessons learned by those in the field.

Participants engaged in a lively discussion lead by All Hands Volunteers’ Jeremey Horan around how the different groups responding used technology.  A number of topics emerged including:

  1. Individual responders are now connected.
    Individual responders are now available in a more immediate way than ever before thanks to advances in mobile technology. Organizers can interact in real-time with responders, something that wasn’t possible (or at least wasn’t happening) in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The new challenge is leveraging this properly.
  2. Response is still dependent on utilities.
    While mobile is important, ultimately ICT runs on power and telecom companies. Twitter, Facebook groups, email, even phone calls and SMS still rely on communications providers and charged devices.
  3. LTE is everywhere.
    One of the most interesting discoveries was the value of LTE. While LTE coverage is still very limited internationally, domestically LTE coverage is robust and complete. One organization reported setting up an inflatable satellite dish on arrival, but took it down in less than 24 hours because it wasn’t needed.
  4. Deploy wired infrastructure early, wireless when you must.
    Wireless networks are easy to deploy quickly, which makes them an obvious choice when setting up an operations center. With only so many wireless channels and frequencies available it doesn’t take long for networks to start interfering with one another as operations grow. Starting with wired and adding access points when necessary avoids having to reconfigure once the traffic jams have started.
  5. In extreme situations, people reach for low-tech.
    In strained situations people will reach for what they know instead of taking the time to learn something new. Hackathon-created tools are great for people who feel comfortable with them, but email, printed forms and even yellow legal pads still rule on the ground. This explains why the most commonly used digital tools in disaster response are still Excel spreadsheets, Word docs and Access databases.
  6. Video is now informing major decisions.
    Sandy saw official agencies bombarded with conflicting information and photoshopped imagery (movie stills, sharks, etc.), and for the first time user-submitted video provided reliable info that was used to make decisions in real-time.
  7. “The Fog of War is Huge.”
    In any emergency situation focus can narrow leading to blind spots and communication issues. Responding to Hurricane Sandy, NYC officials were not aware of additional communications channels used by volunteer groups and had almost no insight into their actions. To make matters worse national response agencies use ICS and NIMS frameworks to coordinate, but most volunteer groups either don’t know these frameworks exist or don’t know how to integrate with them.
  8. The most important response elements happen before the disaster.
    Preparation is key both in making communities more adept at helping themselves in the immediate aftermath of a disaster and helping response organizations coordinate response as help arrives. Hackathons can be extremely helpful, but logistics in response situations are generally strained enough without having to educate people in the field on which new tools to adopt. Preparation gives communities a common, familiar set of tools to fall back on, meaning less fragmentation and more focus on response.

Interested in joining debates like this in the future? Sign up to get invited to future Salons in London, Nairobi, San Francisco, New York City, and Washington, DC.


Filed Under: Relief
More About: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Written by
Aaron Mason is a technology and development expert with experience in design, analytics, ICT and disaster response. Follow him on Twitter: @Aaron_Mason
Stay Current with ICTworksGet Regular Updates via Email

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.