Anonymous crowd of people walking on New York City street sidewalk in 2013

Innovating Emergency Response Through Crowdsourcing

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This weekend, a severe storm, which brought tornadoes with it, devastated the southeastern United States from Georgia to Mississippi, and all the way along the Florida Panhandle. The destruction claimed 19 lives and countless homes. Disasters like this, which happen suddenly and without warning, put incredible strain on emergency management and response personnel. But because citizens are now more connected than ever before, via mobile devices and social media, responders can assess natural disasters and mitigate the resulting damage faster and more accurately. Local government officials have the tools and data to respond and fix the issue in a more targeted informed way.

One area where there has been significant improvement and a direct correlation on keeping people safe during events like the recent tornadoes is real-time awareness of the state of a natural disaster area. Both dispatchers as well as field personnel must understand how large-scale events have unfolded, and where the greatest need for action is in order to save lives and reduce damage.

Situational awareness was historically often gained through verbal descriptions over radio frequencies, hard copy maps, and personal observations. Today, comprehensive situational awareness can be provided through sensors, cameras, GPS, and other data streams, all integrated into dynamic maps. These maps provide a real-time picture of an emergency that are then shared with those who can act to make a difference. In particular, the information that can be gleaned through citizen smartphone use is a form of social data that helps to provide context. Not only does information sourced from the public serve as a valuable reservoir of situational data, but it generates in real-time.

With the ubiquity of mobile devices, crowdsourced information from the public can be integrated, adding additional layers to agencies’ authoritative data to enhance situational awareness during and after a disaster. This combination can provide additional valuable new forms of information from sources on the ground in and around the emergency. During large-scale disasters like the tornadoes that did such damage to the South this past weekend, government agencies need all the help they can get. Resources are often stretched to their limits, and citizen engagement provides data that adds a crucial layer to the emergency response process.

Customized apps can be created for emergency response agencies to use in order to gain better understanding and awareness of disasters, and their subsequent impacts. By combining crowdsourced information from mobile devices as well as social media data with geospatial analysis, officials may be able to prepare for and respond to a disaster faster than ever before. Collected sensor data, such as that from river-height gauges and seismic monitors, when combined with this crowdsourced information, provides a holistic real-time picture that enhances situational awareness, and may even assist in predicting unforeseen events resulting from the original disaster.

The advantages of this innovation don’t end at simply improving response time and awareness. Analyzing and understanding crowdsourced information from the public over the long-term can generate nontraditional datasets for government agencies to use as a historical baseline for all kinds of solutions. With this valuable information in hand, emergency responders can evaluate present-day events in comparison to previous disasters. A public that is connected is more empowered to have an active role in the operations that are vital to a safe community, especially when governments are able to leverage real-time information from new technologies.

Christian Carlson is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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