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November 26, 2012

Technology, Mother Nature and lessons from hurricane Sandy

Posted by Sanjay Jalona (View Profile | View All Posts) at 11:02 AM

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Tune in to the audio post here*

* This is a recording, by professional voice talent, for your listening convenience.

I spend lots of time in the New York metro region and have many friends and colleagues living in the area hit hard by hurricane Sandy several weeks ago.  Millions were impacted directly by the storm with entire neighborhoods devastated, massive power outages and mile long queues for gasoline.  Whether the storm was a result of global warming may be open to debate but it's clear that rising sea levels and changing weather patterns are likely to create similar destructive storms in the future.

The post-storm rebuilding will continue for years but we need to be thinking now about how to be better prepared for the next natural disaster.  We'll never harness the boundless power of mother nature but technology can provide early warnings and give us an edge in dealing with the disruption.  These past weeks have shown us where technology can make a big difference in saving lives, mitigating damage and improving our actions in response to natural disasters of this magnitude.

Sandy created extensive flooding beneath the streets of Manhattan leaving millions without power and subway tunnels full of seawater.  The state's governor acknowledged that the city seems to get slammed a "100 year flood" every few years now.  Dozens of neighborhoods are more susceptible to flooding and the prospect of building sea walls to keep the potential floodwaters at bay doesn't seem like a crazy idea anymore. Using embedded sensors throughout the city's infrastructure to monitor the storm surge will provide data to help government officials, utilities and emergency responders plan timely responses to flooding and power outages.

Fortunately, many citizens were aided by web communications like Twitter which have rapidly evolved.   We saw how Twitter was used recently by young people in the Middle East to advance the "Arab Spring" leading to the downfall of several oppressive regimes.  But in Sandy's aftermath the tables were turned and government agencies, non-profits and utilities were actively reaching out to citizens to share information and direct people to assistance.  Twitter itself published more than a hundred account names and hash tags for organizations including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Red Cross, state government agencies and local mayor offices. We also know that Cloud technology was an unsung hero to business and consumers.  Acquiring virtually unlimited capability to back-up business and personal information on a Cloud server located hundreds of miles away in a safe facility is a no-brainer.  Disasters like Sandy continue to validate the Cloud model.

In the future, I expect other innovative technologies to play an important role in post-disaster activity when the most critical issues have been identified and brought under control.  My friends have recounted stories of waiting in gas lines for over four hours, only to be turned away when stations ran out.  Applying predicative analytics to understand how an individual's behavior will change in response to a disruption like a power outage can help officials and businesses plan more effectively.  Although everyone in the same geographic area will be impacted, individual responses are likely to be varied.  A homeowner with an emergency generator may not respond in the same way as his next door neighbor now sitting in the dark.  Likewise, families with gas sipping hybrid vehicles may be less anxious about having to wait in long lines to fill their tank than their friends with gas guzzling SUVs parked in their driveways.  Having insights into how people will respond under specific circumstances allows officials and suppliers to be more effective in allocating scarce resources and building resilient supply chains.

But what's most interesting to me is the potential for corporations to really help their customers in a time of great need and demonstrate social responsibility.  After a natural disaster, people are looking to meet their most basic needs.  People need food, fuel, cash and lots of other things we take for granted in our developed world.  I asked a friend which mobile apps provided the most value post-Sandy and without hesitating he responded that his Dunkin' Donuts app won hands down because it informed him which stores were open in his area complete with a mapping capability.  In contrast while his bank's app expressed their determination to serve their customers "during this difficult period", there was no way to determine which branches were open or had operating ATMs.  Effective digital marketing can be a differentiator in good times and bad.

I'm hoping we never have another storm like Sandy and maybe I'm too optimistic.  But with the effective use of technologies like pervasive computing, Cloud computing, big data and digital marketing we can blunt the impact of the next disaster and make it easier for people to cope.

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