South by Southwest
A perfect storm: technology and disaster response

The frequency and impact of disasters have increased around the globe over the past decade. According to Andrea Basora, of the Insurance Information Institute, the communications infrastructure of our rapidly accelerating world can make the difference in saving lives.  That means communications and the way people receive and share information about disasters needs to keep up, too.

Basora joined with the National Weather ServiceRed Cross, and the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes at SXSW to talk about how technology is shaping how people prepare for and respond to disasters. Each has recently made significant steps to develop apps and use technology to shape how they do business and reach consumers.

Crowdsourcing Response Needs

The Red Cross revamped their response capabilities in 2012 with the launch of the Digital Operation Center, which synthesizes social conversations about disasters in real time. The Digidoc gives the Red Cross a comprehensive view of where events are happening and what the needs are on the ground.  It changed how the Red Cross responded after storms such as Sandy, according to Wendy Harmon, Red Cross Director of Social Strategy.  They can now better balance the deployment of resources between pre-determined locations and areas that “pop up”—places where people are asking for help with specific needs.

If it ain’t Broke

The conversation Saturday didn’t just focus on new technology. Disruptions from major events still take out power and cell reception, slowing the ability to get real-time information. Radio (i.e. NOAA Weather Radio) is still one of the top, reliable media channels for disaster information.  Radio channels may be old-fashioned, but they are still critical, especially in developing nations where mobile and Internet penetration is still low outside major population centers.

Better Use of Data

But all the government and institution-level preparedness can only go so far.  Individuals have to get themselves ready to face the unexpected, and we don’t yet have data about why people don’t prepare ahead of time and what consumers want out of new apps. We need to understand—through research and conversation—what the typical barriers to preparedness are. This is especially important to inform tool development so they are responsive to what prompts consumers to take action so that when the real action starts, they are ready.

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