Harvey, Irma, and Maria: The Growing Need For Open Disaster Relief Data


In the wake of three devastating hurricanes, disaster relief organizations relied on massive government data-sets to provide live updates and allocate important resources. Google pulled data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association to keep maps updated based on the rapidly changing water levels and weather patterns in Texas. The American Red Cross used data to create interactive maps of shelter and hospital locations in each affected state. And the Department of Homeland Security launched an open data platform for geospatial data on Harvey, Irma, and Maria, making the information publicly available for organizations to download and use towards their own relief efforts.

Going beyond immediate relief, open government data sources can be cross-referenced and leveraged to inform policy-making and tease out the social impact of these hurricanes. The Geographic Information Systems (GIS) company ESRI partnered with the nonprofit emergency service provider Disaster Relief to map social vulnerabilities in Houston communities. Their maps demonstrate a high correlation between flood zone areas and communities of immigrants or non-English speakers, low income communities, and elderly populations in Florida and Puerto Rico. (The Atlantic wrote an interesting piece exploring the overlap between socioeconomic status and vulnerability to flooding).  

At Civic Hall Labs, we’re thrilled to see communities leveraging civic technology and open data to coordinate relief efforts. As Wired reported, FEMA’s robust digital infrastructure of social media alerts, live mapping, and online emergency response centers proved highly effective during 2012 Hurricane Sandy in New York, and stood in stark contrast to the notoriously clumsy management of Katrina. So far, these technologies are being leveraged in response to Hurricane Harvey and Irma, though they have been less successful when it comes to aid for Maria.

The advantages of open, user-friendly data interfaces for coordinating relief efforts are obvious, but the takeaways extend beyond disaster management.  Data mismanagement and inherent structural issues can create sluggish, inefficient systems that create a wide variety of problems for large populations. Next week, we’ll discuss how we are partnering with New York City to tackle a large scale, structural data issue within the city’s social services, something that impacts over 3 million residents.

In the meantime, if you would like to help with relief efforts beyond using civic tech, please visit this page.