More than six months after Hurricane Sandy, pockets of eastern seaboard residents remain displaced, even as they rebuild. There is still much to be done to return the region to normalcy. But as someone who was involved in some of the federal government’s efforts to speed that process—in particular to harness the power of technology and social media to overcome barriers to response and recovery—I believe Sandy marked a turning point in how we as a nation will respond to large-scale disasters in the years ahead.
In unprecedented fashion, tech companies, voluntary and faith-based organizations and federal agencies, including the White House, worked together to build tools and cut through administrative red tape. The process made one thing very clear: Tech expertise and crowdsourced data are revolutionizing disaster response and recovery.
Cutting the Red Tape
Finding housing for the thousands of displaced Sandy survivors was among the most immediate challenges.
When the president spoke at the Red Cross on Oct. 30, his instructions to federal agencies were clear: “Do not figure out why we can’t do something; I want you to figure out how we do something. I want you to cut through red tape. I want you to cut through bureaucracy. There’s no excuse for inaction at this point.”
We knew technology would play a big role in finding those solutions. However, the need was not simply a virtual one.
During the urgency of a disaster, suggesting there’s “an app for that” just doesn’t cut it. Tech-based sharing economy platforms, like Airbnb, seemed to have great potential. But there was a problem when it came to working with these services: Documentation needed for receiving federal disaster assistance was not designed to account for these new platforms.
Traditionally a FEMA disaster applicant needs to show a signed lease agreement to receive continued financial assistance for housing in order to prevent fraudulent claims, but it effectively disqualified the use of sharing economy platforms. So, we had to make a change — and quickly.
Working closely with FEMA, we found a solution that allowed Sandy survivors to submit an email reservation and electronic receipt in lieu of a lease agreement to verify housing and a continued need for FEMA disaster assistance.
Unlocking Invaluable Data
In the wake of Sandy, seemingly simple tasks, such as refueling your car, were incredibly difficult. Determining which gas stations were open, had fuel and power from a backup generator was hard. What was really frustrating was knowing that, in many cases, the information existed but was siloed in the vaults of company databases and posts across social media platforms.
That inspired some of us to work with the team at FEMA and other members of the office of the U.S. Chief Technology Officer to email and call the companies, organizations and even high school students who held various pieces of this supply-and-demand puzzle to improve public access to these data.
Waze, a crowdsourced mapping tool, opened up access to the feedback users were providing about gas stations. The All Hazards Consortium worked with Hughes Network Systems — which provides point-of-sale systems to gas stations, restaurants, pharmacies and hotels — to share daily updates on which locations appeared to be open and operational.
Perhaps most remarkable was the group of students from Franklin High School in New Jersey that went on “Twitter watch” — scanning for tweets about gas stations and adding those comments to their database. We encouraged those students to open up the database so other platforms could benefit from this real-time information.
Together, we collaborated with Google, which compiled all of these data sources and displayed them in its popular Google Crisis Map. This map, along with others, helped the federal government better understand the needs of the people impacted by the hurricane, while also providing useful information directly to those communities.
Hacking a Disaster
The tech community played other heroic, but largely unsung, roles. Companies like Hotel Tonight and Angie’s List donated net revenue and offered free memberships, and Walkscore quickly developed a website to help people search for housing by commute-time using various modes of transit. For example, a resident in need of housing could use this tool to search for a place to live that is within a 30-minute commute of his or her workplace or child’s school.
More than 800 technologists, some from NY Tech Meetup, volunteered their services to find solutions to some of the most pressing issues in emergency response. And in a sign that government and innovation can be truly compatible — even synergistic — many of us in the federal government contributed to and learned from these spontaneous activities as they happened.
That involvement continues. Today, through the leadership of Administrator Craig Fugate and Deputy Administrator Rich Serino, FEMA is working with innovators to develop creative solutions for improving disaster response and recovery operations, not just in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy but also for future incidents.
Sandy was a terrible disaster, and full recovery will be long and difficult. But the tech community’s unprecedented response to Sandy was something I could have never anticipated and has left me inspired about the prospects for a new model of response that takes advantage of the shared capacities of federal agencies and the tech community.
If you are a tech company or innovator who has a great idea or is interested in working to improve the way our country responds to disasters, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brian Forde is the Senior Advisor to the U.S. Chief Technology Officer for Mobile and Data Innovation at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy
(Originally published at Mashable.com)