Data Catalyst - OpenOn October 29, 2012, post-tropical storm Sandy made landfall on the eastern seaboard of the United States. In its wake, Sandy left a trail of damage—damage that could have been worse had the right preparations not been made.

Good data helped make those preparations possible; good insight made that data actionable.

The power of data is clear in any crisis situation like Sandy: data allows us to predict natural events, to model their impact, and to effectively allocate resources. The transportation systems, electricity grids and other such services all used data to make decisions about how they would respond to Sandy.

In order to make informed decisions in an emergency situation, citizens need to have access to data through a usable and valuable presentation layer.

In any crisis situation, data can lose its meaning. This happens for many reasons: people’s interpretive abilities become impaired in time of crisis, the amount of valuable information becomes overwhelming, and separating signal from all the noise becomes more difficult.

This is where data innovation can play a role in crisis management.

Before Sandy made landfall, innovators big and small drew upon publicly available data sets to create visualizations that helped inform the public and decision-makers. These visualizations, many of them map-based, attempted to give meaning to the data. For example, Google combined various public data sets into their maps service to allow users to examine the storm’s path, see traffic conditions in affected areas and find emergency services locations.

Other organizations and individuals deployed data and maps in similar ways, each providing meaning to the data and making the data more usable. Among them:

There were many more examples. However, there are limitations to these innovations. What would happen in the case of lost Internet access or power outages? What about citizens who don’t know about, or think to check on, these kinds of tools? Or citizens who lack access to the Internet or data literacy to use the tools?

Crisis data mapping and visualizations are a first step in helping people make sense of important data, but they’re just that: a first step. The future could involve smart appliances and smart homes that are able to prepare for inclement weather based on available data, or even retailers making better choices about how to supply consumers by tracking weather, traffic or impact data.

What innovations can change the way we use data to respond to natural disasters? What kinds of data and tools are still needed to make that innovation happen?

Matthew Calverley

Matthew Calverley holds a Masters of Information degree from the University of Toronto, and recently completed a practicum with the Data Catalyst team. Matthew’s interests range from sensemaking, to critical understandings of gaming, to sports of all kinds. See more…