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  • 05.09.14

How Open Data Could Help Save The Day After A Disaster

Instead of being a sinkhole for millions in government funds and donations, recovery after the next big disaster can be more transparent and effective.

How Open Data Could Help Save The Day After A Disaster
[Image: Abstract via Shutterstock]

Millions of people turn to technology for help when disaster strikes. After Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, Americans posted ads on Craigslist offering victims their spare bedrooms, while others used the platform to connect with missing loved ones. In 2010, less than a week after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, organizations raised more than $16 million in donations via text message. But while support for those affected by disasters is critical, what about developing more comprehensive tools that prepare citizens and government before the next catastrophe–and that can also help communities rebuild using local resources?

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With climate change showing no signs of lessening, catastrophic disasters are only going to increase in intensity. Disaster preparedness and community resiliency are vital. And citizens need to be able to access accurate information in real time, before, during, and after these horrifying events.

We all have been frustrated by reports of billions of dollars wasted or used ineffectively after a disaster. Think about Katrina, where along with the lives lost, many of our donations never reached those we intended to help. Not to mention the millions more in taxpayer dollars that were doled out in no-bid contracts to Halliburton and others.

There is a better way. The growing open data and civic tech movement can help make recovery more transparent and local. Our donations and taxpayer dollars can be spent much more effectively after a disaster. They can go to local businesses in affected communities that have a stake in making sure their infrastructure is rebuilt properly, and we can hire local residents who have found themselves out of a job because of the disaster.

While government advances in serving victims of disaster every year, those in the civic tech industry are in a unique position to help them move more quickly and efficiently–and ultimately help in eliminating problems like no-bid contracts and fraud among relief recipients.

Open data has helped improve communication between federal agencies and it can help before, during, and after a disaster. It can hold people and companies accountable when they are entrusted to spend our tax dollars wisely while repairing the damage after disasters.

A recent report from U.C. Berkeley and California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom made it abundantly clear that Californians want government to focus more on resiliency. Overwhelmingly, the California Report Card found the top concern up and down the state is disaster preparedness–or lack thereof. This is not unique to the Golden State.

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Civic startups and others in the open-data space have shown that they are an incredible resource when it comes to creating tools that citizens and government can use to be better prepared for a crisis. Open data has made mobile apps possible that identify the location of hundreds of Automatic External Defibrillators (AEDs) when someone nearby is in need of a lifesaving procedure. Another app maps out all the fire hydrants in Boston, so volunteers can dig them out after a snowstorm. But, we can do more.

On Christmas Eve this past year, many of us in the civic-tech community received a call to join Todd Park, the White House’s chief technology officer, for a Safety Datapalooza in Washington, D.C. We were asked to come to Washington to see if we could help develop tools and resources to empower local communities.

Out of our initial discussion, and a number of follow-up events and conversations with FEMA, the U.S. Department of Transportation, Department of Agriculture, and others, my company, Appallicious, has begun working on a tool for neighborhoods to plan, prepare, and create leadership before any disaster. It’s called the Disaster Assessment and Assistance Dashboard (DAAD). The dashboard uses open data to assess community resiliency, which gives communities the ability to access necessary resources in order to be better prepared for a disaster, and promotes economic recovery after one occurs.

DAAD enables citizens, businesses, and governments to share resources; request assistance; and better understand the potential for recovery on a localized basis, all in one application. The dashboard further empowers communities and businesses to list their available assets in a shareable marketplace for the federal and local government to hire locally while rebuilding. This makes a whole lot more sense than handing out multi-million dollar contracts to huge corporations. This way, the funding of these rebuilding projects stays in the community, contributing to the overall economic recovery, and putting local residents back to work.

We don’t know when the next disaster will strike. But we’ve seen how the civic-tech and open-data movement is beginning to make government work better, save money, and increase transparency. This same energy should be a center of any disaster preparedness conversation moving forward. Both the private and public sector needs to step up and make comprehensive disaster preparedness technology a priority.

About the author

Yo Yoshida is the CEO and co-founder of Appallicious, an open data visualization company based in San Francisco that creates products to help government better serve its citizens. He is a seasoned innovator, entrepreneur, industry writer, and start-up adviser with a passion for government and technology.

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