Crowdsourcing Comes to Emergency Services’ Aid

This article was written by Nelson Bennett and originally published in Business in Vancouver.

One of the challenges for first responders during a manmade or natural disaster is assessing damage and deploying resources where and when it’s most needed.

In the case of an earthquake in Haiti in 2010, it took international aid teams 48 hours to do an assessment.

That delay prompted the head of Jamaica’s office of disaster preparedness to issue a challenge during an international conference: could emerging technologies, like mobile devices and social media, be harnessed to provide for better, quicker disaster response?

Vancouver’s Otto Krauth – an expert in geographic information systems (GIS) – went to work and developed “situational awareness” software that he believes could save lives by improving assessments of damage and needs during natural or manmade disasters ranging from earthquakes to oil spills.

He and partner David Westdorp created RDANA Technology, which recently won the people’s choice award at the BC Technology Industry Association’s Demo Day, and will be showcased at an Enform oil and gas industry safety conference in Banff in May.

“It gives everybody a situational awareness – an insight that simply hasn’t been available before,” Westdorp said. “It takes that 48 hours and shrinks it down to 20 minutes.”

Westdorp and Krauth said their technology could be used both by municipal governments as part of their disaster-response plans and by the oil and gas sector for coping with things like oil spills.

They cite the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 as an example of a manmade disaster that could have been averted had there been a way to map all the warning signs that were being generated.

“When they did the post-analysis, what they found out was that there were a number of events that happened on the particular oil platform – there was heat there, a strange noise here, smoke here, smells – there were different things going on, but nobody had the full picture,” Westdorp said. “Nobody knew the situational awareness overview.”

RDANA’s situational awareness and information notification technology (SAINT) uses GIS to create a secure situational map in a disaster. It also co-ordinates information pouring in from multiple streams – including emails, phone calls, text messages, sensor data and even social media – to create a real-time, evolving picture of what is going on in the disaster area.

It uses both “trusted” and “untrusted” sources to create a “common operating picture” that all emergency responders would work from.

A trusted source might be a firefighter or utility company worker entering a damage assessment report on an iPhone. Or it might be sensor data from a weather station.

An untrusted source could include twitter feeds and photos being uploaded by ordinary citizens – students trapped in a school after an earthquake, for example.

When an event happens, a pattern develops on social media, Krauth said. The SAINT system can filter social media feeds and plot them on a map, allowing emergency responders to use crowdsourcing to gather additional information that would otherwise be hard to harness.

“Our software can tap – in real time – into that conversation around a geographic area,” Krauth said. “It’s like eyes on the ground for the incident commander to visualize what people are seeing.”

RDANA’s SAINT system would be provided on a subscription basis, at a cost of $6,000 to $20,000 per year.