Harnessing Data for Disaster Response

Harnessing Data for Disaster Response

December 15, 2016

December 15, 2016 - As in many policy arenas, data and “big data” continue to play an increasingly large role in public health preparedness and response planning and decision making.  We’ve all seen articles and stories in recent years about the benefits data generated during disasters - particularly from social media[1] - has during disaster responses. There are countless articles and studies highlighting the ways this information has enhanced information sharing and ultimately protected communities. But an important point that I think is not always included, or is at least glossed over, in these stories is the challenge of getting – and using – data during a response.

In many instances involving data, more is often times better. We see this all the time in preparedness, response’s counterpart. Resources such as the National Health Security Preparedness Index and Save the Children’s Community Preparedness Index are indispensable to preparedness policy makers because of the massive amounts of data they contain – they’ve harnessed, cleaned, and distilled dozens of disparate datasets into uniform, consistent measures and readily understood findings. But during a response, large amounts data can often raise more questions and uncertainties than they answer. As emergency managers are pressed to make decisions quickly, they rarely have the ability to sift through or analyze data to confirm where to send resources, or identify the area hardest hit. Data needs to be validated for it to be beneficial, and sometimes, it can be difficult even knowing where to start with so many potential data sets and sources at one’s disposal.

Another challenge in harnessing and providing real-time data for response efforts is a willingness to share data and information. We see this even with the information we provide during a disaster with Rx Open. While none of the information provided by the map is confidential, pharmacies must still opt into the program – not all are automatically enrolled. Additionally, pharmacies that may be interested in opting into the program may not know it exists. So while the map is able to provide helpful data for responders and the public alike, we cannot guarantee it is comprehensive.  In instances like this, where data and information are self-reported, willingness to share data may just be one part of the challenge: users being aware of the opportunity to even provide data and information that could assist response efforts can be another part.

Relatedly, on social media platforms where users are able to set their profiles to private, responders and analysts may not have access to this data that could help inform efforts. For example, users in an area impacted by a disaster may post about an event happening near them that could be useful as a real-time update for responders, but if the user’s account is set to private, agencies monitoring social media will not see it.  

So how can emergency managers and policymakers continue to harness data in the face of these and other challenges? While I don’t propose to have a complete answer, I’d urge stakeholders to put on their engineering hats and think about how to funnel data into tools.

Over the course of our activations this year, we’ve learned of a few such tools that we’re pleased to highlight here.

  • Louisiana Business Emergency Operations Center (BEOC) Open for Business Map: Activated for the response to the Baton Rouge flooding, the map uses crowdsourcing to allow business owners to update the operating status of their business.
  • SABER: Single Automated Business Exchange for Reporting (SABER) is an information sharing portal that allows private sector organizations to share their operating status and service disruptions with authorized government agencies and other approved organizations.
  • Google Crisis Map: Google’s open source and freely available tools allows users to contribute information and updates such as whether a gas station has fuel.

We’ve seen that harnessing data for response efforts has been trending up, and we’re eager to partner and brainstorm new tools that package the power of data for emergency responders and the public.


[1] http://www.emergencymgmt.com/disaster/Social-Medias-Role-Disaster-Response-Expands.html

Sarah Baker

Sarah Baker is a Program Associate at Healthcare Ready. In this capacity, she provides a wide range of policy research, writing, and analytical support to the organization's preparedness initiatives. Prior to joining Healthcare Ready, Sarah served as a consultant to the Department of Homeland Security and a variety of private sector organizations, during which time she supported the design, conduct, and evaluation of scores of preparedness exercises. Sarah recently received her Masters in Public Policy from Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy and holds a B.A. degree from the University of Notre Dame.