NYC shining example of tech over adversity

OvumHurricane Sandy, a “super storm” that hit the Caribbean and moved north up the eastern coast of the United States, was a test of the technology-enabled readiness of a government and a society to respond to a natural disaster.
In New York City, the damage has been extensive and, in some ways, unprecedented. As of the day following the storm there were 18 deaths, the most significant damage the city’s transit system has sustained in its 108-year history, and around 750,000 people without power.
But despite Sandy’s destructiveness, there is a sense that things could have been much worse. Compared to the response to a major blizzard in New York in December 2010, which Mayor Bloomberg was heavily criticized for bungling, the response to Sandy was characterized by the effective use of real time data, analytics, and IT-enabled insight, combined with hands-on management and clear urgency at local, state, and national levels.
As the Northeastern United States (and New York City, in particular) readied itself for the onslaught of Hurricane Sandy, citizens received helpful texts, emails, and automated calls from Notify NYC, the city’s official real time information source for emergency events.
These continued throughout the storm, alongside messaging from nonprofit organizations, companies, and media organizations, updating people shuttered in their homes about weather, infrastructure, and services concerns.
On phones, laptops, and tablets, via social media, email, and online news, people were sent maps detailing flood zones and refuge centers, messages from the mayor, checklists of how to prepare, and interactive visualizations tracking the storm’s progress and accumulating damage. Reports were also sent to the city on issues to be addressed in real time. These reports were gathered using a variety of mechanisms, ranging from the city’s official 311 reporting system to non-government initiatives such as a partnership between city-monitoring app SeeClickFix and media outlet The Huffington Post.
Given the longer battery life on consumer electronics and the continuous connection to telcos’ data networks, people were kept updated on others’ activities even after power outages. In this way, social networks spread important messages and regional announcements quickly and allowed people to feel like they were part of a community, even when isolated.
Behind the scenes, the city’s Office of Emergency Management was in constant contact with the National Weather Service and national coordination agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, gathering the data necessary to take pre-emptive action such as shutting down the public transportation system, evacuating specific areas of the city, closing bridges and roads, and readying emergency aid after the storm to help those affected.
Sandy’s lessons
With the storm’s passing, attention now shifts to rapid recovery, cleanup, and the provision of human services – particularly to the more vulnerable populations that are disconnected from much of the technology infrastructure that facilitates resilience.
The city must maintain the level of communication that existed during the storm to help citizens deal with the aftermath. It must also establish direct channels to take advantage of New York’s formal and informal volunteer communities of practice, particularly those with skill sets that the city may lack.
For the longer term, there is a need to address the digital divide and enable more citizens to be included in the city’s digital backbone during difficult times. This means expanding mobile services, the social currency of disenfranchised populations.
Localities that have not yet done so should think about investing in situational-awareness tools that can help with prediction and seeing through the “fog of war” that is often present in disaster scenarios, particularly as weather variations intensify due to climate change.
While many municipalities cite a lack of funds as the reason not to invest, it takes just one major storm and a weakened ability to prepare and respond to incur far greater costs than the cost of initial investment in appropriate technology infrastructure.
New York likely saved millions of dollars in damage costs through its investments in data-based decision-making, its commitment to engaging citizens using all of their communication channels, and its strong leadership. Other cities should follow suit.
Nishant Shah is an analyst for public sector technology at Ovum. For more information, visit