When superstorm Sandy devastated New York this past fall, rescuers faced a logistical nightmare. In storm ravaged neighborhoods in Staten Island, the Rockaways, and Brooklyn, the traditional pattern of disaster relief was disrupted. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), along with state and local authorities, was poorly suited to deal with urban catastrophe. A disparate group of local emergency responders–primarily individuals, community organizations, and elements from Occupy Wall Street–were on the ground delivering food, medicine, and supplies to storm victims. Many of them used services from nonprofit Direct Relief, who license logistical software from shadowy data-analysis firm Palantir.
After Sandy made landfall, Direct Relief used Palantir products to correlate events on the ground with local aid demands and projected trends in the area. Palantir, which was founded by tech icon Peter Thiel and received initial funding from the CIA-backed venture capital firm In-Q-Tel (which “identifies, adapts, and delivers innovative technology solutions to support the missions of the Central Intelligence Agency”), specializes in data parsing products that let analysts correlate massive data sets with each other. Direct Relief’s software package took technology originally intended for the intelligence community and put it to work predicting where medicine, food, and clothing needs would be greatest.
Andrew Schroeder of Direct Relief told Co.Exist that his organization used Palantir’s software to help get supplies to aid organizations working on the ground in Manhattan, Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, New Jersey, and other Sandy-affected areas. For example, the nonprofit was able to correlate databases of pharmacies which were open with nearby charities which needed supplies–saving valuable gas money, travel time, and logistics work.
Palantir-licensed software was also used by Team Rubicon, a volunteer organization of military veterans who team up with first responders to assist in domestic and foreign disasters. Team Rubicon volunteers worked on the ground in the Rockaways and elsewhere alongside Palantir engineers, who helped deploy assistance to local residents through mapping and data analysis tools. By using Palantir’s technology, Team Rubicon members avoided wasteful trips and got aid to residents more quickly. Volunteers used Palantir-integrated Android and iOS apps in the field to record information, which would then be saved on a central server for use in Team Rubicon’s headquarters.
Both organizations are using a data platform designed to catch terrorists. In Team Rubicon’s promotional materials, Palantir analyst Alec Augustine-Marceil said in November that “I was in Afghanistan a week ago using this same system to track terrorists.”
Although Palantir’s original target market was the intelligence community, their expensive but massively capable products found a considerable customer base among other government agencies and the private sector. The company’s financial product, Palantir Metropolis, is regularly used by banks, hedge funds, and other financial institutions for data-driven prediction. By applying data connection and predictive tools originally used to find behavior patterns of individuals in public or financial records that might imply terrorist activity, banks can also analyze the behavior of individual holdings or instruments.
In a 2011 article, BusinessWeek‘s Ashlee Vance and Brad Stone reported that Palantir’s software has been used to uncover bombing networks in Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. It is also used by the Centers for Disease Control to track foodborne epidemiology and for disaster relief response in places like Haiti.
Direct Relief also used a Palantir software platform for their own relief efforts in Haiti. The organization’s Haiti work was conducted with the help of the Operational Biosurveillance project, which has ties to biological monitoring firm Ascel Bio. Operational Biosurveillance and Direct Relief tracked the post-Haitian earthquake cholera outbreak. As in the case of Sandy in the States, the software was used to help get supplies to the right locations. Rather than the CIA’s use of Palantir to parse hundreds of databases to locate terrorists, the database manipulation in this case was designed to streamline disaster logistics. Operational Biosurveillance also provided disease broadcasts for Haiti; they created similar forecasts for New York and New Jersey that predicted Sandy’s effect on flu outbreaks.