Information Sharing Makes Cities Safer

By Tony Surma

Tony Surma is CTO and Senior Director for Microsoft Disaster Response. He is responsible for the world-wide team and program at Microsoft focused on delivering technologies and technical assistance to communities, responders and customers both in response to natural disasters and in support of proactive resiliency efforts.

Cities today are at the forefront of innovation with engaged leaders and citizens actively tackling society’s biggest challenges.

One of those challenges is information sharing during natural disaster.

According to the Red Cross’ World Disasters Report, information becomes as vital as food, water, and shelter during emergencies, and technology can be a powerful tool for getting it into the hands of those who need it when disaster strikes. Through partnerships and collaboration with others in the industry, Microsoft is focused on ways technology can rapidly enable info sharing among citizens, governments, and responders impacted by disaster.

Citizens Helping Citizens

Once people are safe usually the first thing they want to do is locate their loved ones and understand the details of what happened, whether there is additional danger ahead, and where to go for lifesaving resources. Many people around the world have mobile Internet-enabled devices with access to social networks, and these can be useful in getting help for themselves and their neighbors whether they are next door or on the other side of the world. An important evolution – on which Microsoft and others are focused – is to take the large amounts of data generated through social media during an emergency and curate it into an immediate and reliable source of actionable information for citizens and responders.

SF72.org is a great example of culling information and converting data into actionable preparedness and response. Created by the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management, with input from local community members, the site offers current and relevant information on things like weather and maps, as well as community data feeds and emergency preparedness guidance.

Another organization we work with, Humanitarian Toolbox, has brought together the generosity of those who volunteer their technical skills at hackathons and the long term benefits of software development processes to rapidly build, maintain and deploy open source technical solutions for responders. To sustain these development efforts and to provide a home for solutions already developed, the open source projects are maintained in the cloud across multiple teams at both physical and virtual hackathons to engage volunteers regardless of their location or experience with open source projects.  Each application and project – including the Crisis Check-in application currently in beta – is built from the requirements of one or more response organizations so that everyone engaged can know that their efforts are aligned with what responders need as they respond to future disasters.

Technology Helping Information Sharing

Without power and connectivity, the ability to effectively communicate across groups becomes extremely challenging at best. Therefore one of our focus areas is working with partners to bring connectivity to disaster-stricken areas in locations like evacuation shelters, as well as to outlying areas where people may be isolated and need help.

A recent example, during the 2013 Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, we collaborated across the technology industry to deploy TV White Space radios to enable Internet connectivity for impacted citizens, and also played a key role in the deployment of three emergency.lu connectivity kits with Skype low bandwidth enabling communications for 5,000 humanitarian aid workers.


Click video above to learn about TV White Space.

Another recent and devastating event that took place April of 2013 was the Boston Marathon bombing in the U.S. To connect and provide a support system for survivors as they recover and rebuild, we collaborated with others to build what is known as the Yammer survivor network, which has been used not only to deal with the trauma of the Boston Marathon bombing, but to find healthcare providers, and keep in contact with people who shared the experience. Some of the injured – including those who lived far away – even used the group to organize trainings to run the marathon the following year.

Looking ahead at the future, technology will play an increasingly important role in our ability to connect people with lifesaving information and to make communities more resilient to disaster.  Microsoft is working with responders and others across the tech industry to bring forward the principles of open data sharing and data visualization which will allow for real-time coordination of relief efforts making sure that scarce resources are distributed quickly and to the locations most in need.

Please watch this space for more news and information on these topics. To ask questions, share ideas, or receive more information, join the conversation on Twitter by following @MsftResponse or visit www.microsoft.com/disasterresponse

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