A Wired City Versus A Hurricane

My grandma was trapped in mandatory evacuation zone with hurricane Irene fast approaching. As an elderly Russian immigrant, she didn’t have much access to good information about the storm. I rushed to the internet to see what I can find so that I can give her the best advice I can.

Flash back to the earthquake in Haiti and I was part of an exciting example of how technology tools can be used in the face of a disaster. The non-profit I work for, Digital Democracy, had two staff in Port-Au-Prince when the earthquake struck. One of our advisors put up a crisismapping platform, Ushahidi, to help them and others crowdsource messages of help and emergency. SMS, Tweets and Facebook posts were placed on a map by concerned students in Boston so that emergency responders could save lives in Haiti. Thankfully our staff made it back safe, though they were shaken up and our equipment was crushed in their collapsed residence.

When the massive snow storm hit NYC this past winter, we were fast to act again, being part of the Snowmageddon Cleanup. New York has a robust 911 and 311 system, unlike Haiti, and so the question was different: How could citizens help each other in this time of crisis. Does anyone have a spare shovel? Do you need food? Is there a snowball fight that should be known? These type of citizen to citizen exchanges are an exciting possibility as technology can help facilitate a connection between neighbors who otherwise may have never met. Whereas Cory Booker was responding to tweets and digging people out of the snow in Newark, in NYC, this was a distributed effort. A blending of the two approaches, high profile yet citizen based, could make for a new era of digital civic engagement.

This new era is starting to show itself in NYC thanks to leaders who have been prolific on social media like Mayor Bloomberg and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio. The latter’s office has set up an online volunteer sign up sheet for citizens to help at 311 call centers and/or at evacuation sites across the city. Moreover, they’ve set up their own Ushahidi site, Storm Watch. However, the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) have also launched an Ushahidi-based Severe Weather Map.

With minimal promotion from OEM, their crowdsourced crisismap still received over 150 reports. It remains to be seen how these sites will be promoted in teh future, as well as how the overlap is reconciled. Crucially, both are missing both the integration with 311 and 911, which might confuse New Yorkers, but also the citizen to citizen engagement element. It’s unlikely to get a response from emergency services if running into a shortage of food, or if a pet is lost, but here is where good neighbors can come in. A couple of examples have been put up: Clean Up & IreneNYC.

In addition to government-led projects, there are some corporate solutions to the storm also. Foursquare and the Wall Street Journal teamed up to share the location of NYC evacuation centers. The site is helpful, but the information isn’t accessible via mobile or on Foursquare itself, two places that are most likely the access points for people looking for help.

AT&T responded by sharing a host of “tips,” including encouraging users to familiarize themselves with text messages, if and when voice calls do not get through. While my phone calls on their network do not go through on an average day in New York, this occurred again and it’s unfortunate to think what will happen during further the emergency times.

Google has done a great job of compiling the data that is out there into their own crisis map landing site with the most comprehensive overview of evacuation zones and centers, Con Edison’s power outages, FEMA evacuation routes and real-time tracking of the weather conditions. Thanks to the NYC data mine and the new national open data initiative, it’s easy for organizations and businesses to get the data needed to tell stories, such as one about the Irene disaster, in real-time. Whereas the government site faced some down time due to being overloaded with requests, this site stayed up. WNYC radio teamed up with them to host a version on their site as well.

Being plugged in to a whole host of solutions is exciting and new, but it’s important that kids start learning about this in schools. I remember learning stop, drop and roll, as well as tuck and cover, but learning how to read maps, mash data, help neighbors, and more is where the future is taking us. Kids need to be prepared.

The elderly need to be prepared too. My grandma moved to a safer place in enough time, thanks to a wired and responsive family. But many of her neighbors were not so lucky. They either didn’t know or were skeptical of how bad the storm was going to be. Others refused to leave. “Mandatory evacuation” did not follow with instructions about how to leave and get to the nearest shelters. Particularly not in the Russian language of people living in the evacuation area in Coney Island. With public transportation shut down, the evacuation shelters were too far out of reach for many.

The city has done a phenomenal job at preparing people for the worst. Thankfully it didn’t come to that. But even with the new technologies we now have access, this just shows how much further we have yet to go.

Transparency Note: Though I am not representing my organization Digital Democracy in this article, we do receive complimentary Google Apps for nonprofits and have worked with the New York Department of Education.

Image by Downtown Traveler: Aftermath of Hurricane Irene in NYC_Avenue A and Houston


  1. September 1, 2011 at 12:06 am · Reply

    It was interesting for me this time because as I flew into NYC ahead of Rainstorm Irene, I watched the crisismappers, open data people and NYC government folks start to cooperate on how to map a potential disaster. This was new, there are some strong links being forged, and I have high hopes of NYC becoming the first city to join up all its intiatives into a stronger citizen + council response ability.

  2. September 3, 2011 at 6:49 pm · Reply

    I think the Crowdmaps had more than adequate promotion via NYC.gov / OEM / Rachel Sterne and the crisis mapping community. I think a big factor in only 150 or so reports being filed was the accessibility and usability of the Ushahidi platform. Additionally, I think having two maps diluted the message and confused citizens. Another contributing factor was that Irene weakened aggressively after passing North Carolina, resulting in a lot less damage than anticipated (thankfully).

    We at CiviGuard tried a different tactic and provided a high-context mobile experience to NYC leveraging the NYC data mine content in a location aware manner. With two clicks, any New Yorker got to know if they needed to evacuate, check the addresses of loved ones and search for shelters if needed.

    http://www.civiguard.com/irene was built overnight and delivered 7,500+ evacuation zone validations on the 27th. We believe the simple URL, non-app store distribution and immediate access were major factors contributing to high adoption.

    More details on our blog: http://bog.civiguard.com

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