I’ve been fortunate enough to attend a few “hackathons” and “data jams”, both inside and outside of the government space. These events often have a simple premise: bring together tech experts from different disciplines and organizations so they can create cool, useful solutions or products. The challenge at these gatherings isn’t coming up with great ideas – the tough task is transforming big ideas into tangible to-do lists and, ultimately, a useful product.
The approach to FEMA’s first-ever Data Town Hall was refreshing because our OpenFEMA team harked just as much about project management and results as they did about getting creative when using FEMA’s data. The attendees were asked to break into five challenge tracks: GIS, Disaster Assistance Assessment Dashboard, Accessibility, API and Fire Viz; each with a specific project and private sector team lead. Then experts from the tech sector, government, and non-profits worked to “move the ball forward”.
The projects were all at different stages of development – some were new ideas gathering requirements, others built upon progress from the White House Safety Datapalooza, last year’s National Civic Day of Hacking, or individual effort by emergency management stakeholders.
The common thread across all the challenge tracks was a passion for using government data to make the world a better place. After the event, I asked several attendees about the next steps for their projects and how they plan to use FEMA’s data. Their responses (below) show the value of bringing a variety of stakeholders together to identify and solve common problems.
- Jon Nystrom – ESRI (Geographic Information System Company)
- Noah Reiter – Rave Mobile
- Yo Yoshida – Appallicious
- Marcus Louie – Socrata
Question: Why did you choose to attend?
Jon, ESRI: I attended the event to learn more about the direction that FEMA is moving with their Open Data initiative. Having access to data gives a level of government accountability and allows everyone to participate in the mission of saving lives during a large catastrophic event.
Noah, Rave Mobile: My original reason for attending was to represent the International Association of Emergency Management (IAEM), as a member of its Emerging Technologies Caucus. However, once I learned more about the event, I was equally interested to learn more about FEMA’s OpenGov initiative, particularly as it relates to accessibility.
Marcus, Socrata: I decided to attend because I loved the work done during last year’s National Day of Civic Hacking, and I wanted to continue this great work. Last June, a fire exploration application was created in less than 24 hours using a sample of the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) data that FEMA released for the event.
Yo, Appallicious: My reasons for attending we’re a bit more personal. San Francisco is my home and unfortunately it has seen its share of disasters. I really wanted to find a way to help the city I love and others prepare for and recover after a disaster.
I’ve had the pleasure of working closely with San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee’s Office of Civic Innovation and the San Francisco Department of Public Health (SFDPH) on a number of open data and resiliency projects. I have learned so much from SFDPH about community resilience efforts I was hopeful that I could be helpful to FEMA’s efforts.
Question: Why are you passionate about this work?
Noah, Rave Mobile: All of us are committed to the development of solutions that enhance individual and group safety and security by connecting the public with public safety and emergency management solutions. The discussions around accessibility relate directly to several of our solutions, which provide timely information to 9-1-1, first responders and emergency managers.
Yo, Appallicious: I’ve always loved technology and public service. For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to help make government more accessible to citizens, but I did not know how I could make a difference.
As open data efforts began to heat up with the federal government’s launch of Data.gov and San Francisco’s open data efforts, DataSF.org, a light bulb went off. I began to start thinking about opportunities to transform the way people interact with government. Data.gov, DataSF.org and other open data efforts are making government information easily accessible for developers to make all kinds of civic-minded products that make government work better.
Vice President Joe Biden has summed up how technology will transform government, quoting Irish poet William Butler Yeats, “All’s changed, changed utterly. Terrible beauty has been born.” It is incredible how much has changed so quickly.
Jon, ESRI: We are increasingly seeing large events affect the world and that appears to be trending upwards with the population growth and potential climate change. With events like Hurricane Sandy, support was coming in from around the globe due to the access of Open Data. With disasters, there is always going to be the unknown; designing the solutions and apps before the event will allow mission operators to make decisions based on these new data feeds and analytics.
Question: What was the most interesting thing you learned that day?
Yo, Appallicious: The information obtained from FEMA staff, including CTO Ted Okada, the Red Cross, and other industry professionals, was priceless. The most important thing we learned from the event was where some of the data sets were sitting and introductions to others in the industry that will help us complete the build of the Disaster Assessment and Assistance Dashboard (DAAD). Another important part of that day was that we discovered flaws in the third iteration of DAAD. We found this out through feedback from disaster professionals. We will iterate on and integrate this information into the upcoming build of the product.
Marcus, Socrata: There is so much more about the NFIRS data than I originally thought! There's a lot that can be done with it that I didn't see was possible in the data that was released for the National Day of Civic Hacking.
Noah, Rave Mobile: The most interesting thing I learned during the FEMA Data Town Hall was FEMA’s commitment to assisting emergency management practitioners’ and developers’ with creating technological solutions that will enhance preparedness and safety.
Question: What did you or your project gain from having the event in person?
Marcus, Socrata: For starters, none of us knew each other before the event, so simply holding the event allowed us to coalesce around a shared interest. Setting aside a day to learn more about the data and to discuss its possibilities was helpful for everyone. The event was a good start to building momentum around this particular effort.
Yo, Appallicious: There is no better way to get feedback while still in discovery phase then being at an event like this. Bringing professionals together to work through concepts is an extremely efficient and effective way to develop the best possible product. It also gave us many different ideas for inclusion in the product, how best to launch it and who we should be thinking about partnering with for it to be successful.
Question: What phase of the innovation cycle is your project in, and what are the next steps for moving in to the next phase?
Noah, Rave Mobile: Whereas most of the other working groups have considerable data sets to work with, the Accessibility Team will likely need to establish a data set and, specifically, a knowledge base of its own. The technological elements of our team’s solution are perhaps easier to develop than is the sourcing of the information for the knowledge base that our solution will leverage. Therefore, we have tentatively identified two parallel objectives for the next phase of our project. The first is to begin to compile various needs that individuals might have during a disaster (i.e. an interpreter or vehicle capable of accommodating a wheelchair) and then begin to compile the available resources for individuals with various needs. Simultaneously, we will begin designing the public-facing user interface for the sharing and receiving of these preparedness resources.
Jon, ESRI: We are just in the beginning. We are looking for use cases for developing open data and feeds into useful tools for State and Local responders.
Marcus, Socrata: We have a couple of prototypes that were built last year. These were built in 24 hours and without access to subject matter experts. The result is that we developed some really great looking data exploration tools, but we are not sure whether they are actually serving anyone's needs. Instead of starting from the data and seeing what we can do with it, our next step will is to focus on the stakeholders and their needs and the build tools around that.
Yo, Appallicious: We are currently narrowing the scale and scope using the feedback from this last meeting and over the next two weeks we will begin development of DAAD. Stay tuned!
Finally, I’d like to offer a big “thank you” to all those who attended our first-ever FEMA Data Town Hall. Look for more updates in the coming weeks as the OpenFEMA team continues to check in with project owners and track progress. For more on FEMA’s open government initiative, visit fema.gov/openfema. If you’re a developer, I encourage you to check out the API for FEMA data to dig deeper into our open data sets.
Editor's Note: FEMA is providing this information about third-party products as a reference. FEMA does not endorse any non-government organizations, entities, or services. The views expressed by Data Town Hall participants do not necessarily represent the official views of the United States, the Department of Homeland Security, or the Federal Emergency Management Agency.