Innovating to Improve Disaster Response and Recovery

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Editor's Note: This was originally posted on the White House blog, September 3, 2013. Todd Park is Assistant to the President and US Chief Technology Officer. Rich Serino is the Deputy Administrator of FEMA.

Last week, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) jointly challenged a group of over 80 top innovators from around the country to come up with ways to improve disaster response and recovery efforts.  This diverse group of stakeholders, consisting of representatives from Zappos, Airbnb, Marriott International, the Parsons School of Design, AOL/Huffington Post’s Social Impact, The Weather Channel, Twitter,, Twilio, New York City, Google and the Red Cross, to name a few, spent an entire day at the White House collaborating on ideas for tools, products, services, programs, and apps that can assist disaster survivors and communities.
This collaboration is a great example of this Administration’s commitment to convening private-sector talent and innovators to work with public servants in order to deliver better results for the American people. The event mobilized innovators from the private sector, nonprofits, artistic organizations, and Federal as well as local government agencies to develop solutions that support and integrate both public and private efforts for disaster relief.  It also comes as our Nation prepares for what is usually the peak of Hurricane Season.  In fact, the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Irene fell last week, and the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy is approaching.
During the “Data Jam/Think Tank,” we discussed response and recovery challenges with the participants and other Federal leaders, including Patricia Hoffman, Assistant Secretary at the Department of Energy and Dr. Nicole Lurie, Assistant Secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services.  The participants then broke into subgroups to brainstorm innovative ideas for addressing those challenges, vote on the best ideas, and commit to implementing them.

Below are some of the ideas that were developed throughout the day. In the case of the first two ideas, participants wrote code and created actual working prototypes. 

  • A real-time communications platform that allows survivors dependent on electricity-powered medical devices to text or call in their needs—such as batteries, medication, or a power generator—and connect those needs with a collaborative transportation network to make real-time deliveries. 
  • A technical schema that tags all disaster-related information from social media and news sites – enabling municipalities and first responders to better understand all of the invaluable information generated during a disaster and help identify where they can help.
  • A Disaster Relief Innovation Vendor Engine (DRIVE) which aggregates pre-approved vendors for disaster-related needs, including transportation, power, housing, and medical supplies, to make it as easy as possible to find scarce local resources.
  • A crowdfunding platform for small businesses and others to receive access to capital to help rebuild after a disaster, including a rating system that encourages rebuilding efforts that improve the community.
  • Promoting preparedness through talk shows, working closely with celebrities, musicians, and children to raise awareness.
  • A “community power-go-round” that, like a merry-go-round, can be pushed to generate electricity and additional power for battery-charged devices including cell phones or a Wi-Fi network to provide community internet access.
  • Aggregating crowdsourced imagery taken and shared through social media sites to help identify where trees have fallen, electrical lines have been toppled, and streets have been obstructed.
  • A kid-run local radio station used to educate youth about preparedness for a disaster and activated to support relief efforts during a disaster that allows youth to share their experiences.

Before ending the brainstorm, participants committed to taking responsibility for turning these ideas into tangible actions. We will be excited to see how these materialize into impactful projects that will support disaster response and recovery efforts. Our sincere thanks to all of the participants!

Last Updated: 
09/06/2013 - 09:24


David Thelen:

Cities ought to create new

Cities ought to create new streets design that includes making a separate doublewide sidewalk for the injured and emergency supplies to get through to where they are needed. At other times, pedestrians and bikers would use these sidewalks. They would place these sidewalks on one side of the street, separated with a small median, to that of traffic to make it safer for people. If need be, they could make one lane one-way traffic to make room for these sidewalks. Cities should start to redraw these new lanes immediately to get ready for the next disaster. These sidewalks should be on the opposite side of the street to that of power lines. This is due to after many disasters, like a major ice storm or hurricane; these lines will end up on the ground. Thus block traffic. That is why these sidewalks should be on the opposite side of the street as the power lines. In case of an emergency, these doublewide sidewalks would be where to haul emergency supplies to where it is needed. It would be where these same sidewalks could be used to transport the injured to waiting medical helicopters at open-air areas, as well. There would be 3 tiers of locations to transport injured people and emergency supplies. As many cities are located on the shorelines that are affected by disasters, like a hurricane or an earthquake on the west coast. Navy medical ships and supply ships would be docked just offshore of these places (tier 1.) Open-air areas, like school and church grounds would be the 2nd tier of a distribution system. Then finally people's homes, would be the final tier (Or tier-3.) First, these ships (mentioned above) would be deployed to just off shore of these distressed cities. Military helicopters would transport things and people between these ships and open-air areas like church and school Grounds (tier 2.) This would include air lifting large earth moving vehicles by way of military helicopters, to open air areas, to remove debris from these sidewalks. Then ATVs and golf carts with an attached flat bed would be used to transport needed supplies and injured people to where they need to be transported along these sidewalks (tier 3.) Also it is by way of these new sidewalks, power line trucks could get around as well. Emergency planners ought to pre-position these vehicles and equipment (ATVs, golf carts, attached flat beds, snow blades) before a major disaster were to occur. There needs to be a new Private/Public partnership organized to where certain ATVs, golf carts, attached flat beds, and snow blades could be stored at local churches, schools, grocery stores and warehouses. Perhaps some neighbors could also volunteer to store these vehicles and equipment in their garages, as well. This way in case of an emergency, these vehicles and equipment would be pre-positioned for people to use. In case of a huge winter or ice storm, these ATVs could be equipped with an attached snow blade to remove large amount of snow or ice, as well. I believe cities ought to repaint these roads immediately to get ready for the next disaster. They ought to pre-position these vehicles (ATVs and golf carts) as well. Then perhaps every town would be better prepared for the next major disaster, wherever they may occur, in my opinion.

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