Photo by David Fine/FEMA

Data in a Disaster: Scientists Can Shape the Common Operating Picture

In a disaster situation, when things are at their most stressful, the value of items in short supply (e.g. water, food, energy, communications, etc.) skyrockets. Any of those items could be life-sustaining or, more importantly, lifesaving – but as valuable as they all may be individually or collectively, there is nothing more important to decision makers in a disaster situation than data.

It can come in any form – written or spoken, observed or sensor-recorded, structured or unstructured.  Regardless of whatever shape or means it comes in, the information that it provides has the power to shape decisions that could be forever life-altering.

For example, if you are a firefighter responding to an alarm in a nondescript building, it’s important to know what the purpose of that building may be. Is it a home? A business? Do we know if people are inside it? What about any hazardous materials that might be inside? The answers to any of those questions will no doubt determine whether or not you and your fellow firefighters go inside that structure, as well as how you will attack it to put the fire out.

The same holds true when a police officer responds to a 911 call. The dispatch officer will share not just the address of where the officer should respond, but the reason for them to go there. Knowing what they may be walking into (and what to look for) will certainly better prepare them to respond than going into a situation blind of pertinent details.

In a larger disaster situation, such as when a hurricane, flood, widescale fire or terror attack occur, all of the information streams around public safety, public health, energy, etc., take on even greater importance as all of those pieces play a part in shaping the common operating picture (COP). The picture those details will collectively form will inform the time-critical decisions that must be made in deploying the people, resources and emergency response and the follow-on recovery operations. Without those valuable information points, decisions will be made in a blind environment and the opportunity to make a mistake or a miscalculation only increases.

If you’ve ever seen a real Emergency Operations Center (EOC), it is filled with plenty of skilled people either talking on their phones, working at their computer screens or huddling with others to combine all that they are seeing and hearing into some semblance of order. To outsiders that may seem fairly straightforward, but in the real environment when adrenaline, confusion, and unfolding events are happening very fast you discover that it is very, very hard. It’s like an orchestra conductor trying to bring together an orchestra to perform at a moment’s notice, when no one knows what the next notes are or when or how they are to be played.

Pre-existing relationships between the various instrument players, as well as previous playing experience and practice (exercises) can refine how an orchestra performs, but today’s data-driven world is changing how the COP orchestra plays. For example, monitoring of social media platforms, which now just about every EOC does, provides an almost instant barometer of the pressure the public is feeling when an emergency event is occurring. Besides an individual’s ability to declare themselves safe from harm, which Facebook has helped pioneer, the ability for an EOC to see what rumors, speculations or concerns that the public is having becomes a valuable intelligence tool for the emergency management community. It’s a lesson that FEMA has taken to heart as they now work proactively to address the rumors, falsehoods and “fake news” that often sprout in post-emergency environments.

For better or worse, if people are not kept informed on what’s happening, someone will come up with an answer that will take on a life of its own.

Enter the data scientist, and the job of information assembly may become a bit easier. Like a dock in a busy port, data can be transferred and offloaded by those vessels that want it. The ships that are offloading their data can often take on other data sets to better inform them on where to go next and which direction may be the most expeditious and promising to take.

Bringing data scientists along with analytics and machine learning into EOCs will give us the next generation of common operating pictures decision makers want and need. As much as an EOC director is charged with bringing all of the data points into one report for leaders to understand what is happening in an emergency, adding a data scientist into the mix enables that same one report to identify other patterns or insights that may not be as apparent as other recorded details. That’s insight, perspective and full aperture understanding that you want to have shared in the most stressful of conditions. Adding such expertise in the EOC should be part of the never-ending evolution of emergency management – especially in the dynamic homeland security environment.

As new technologies and solutions emerge, especially those that better connect citizenry to government, taxpayers as well as elected officials are going to expect faster, more accurate and far more informed decision making. They will always expect that effectiveness to occur on the “good days” when no disaster or disruption disturbs their community and way of life. But it will be on the “bad days” when that informed and full-spectrum insight will be at its most crucial.

Lives, infrastructure and ways of life are all depending on the decisions that will be made on those “bad days.” Bringing in the skills, talents and means that can shape that better common operating picture are the essential next steps.

Rich Cooper is Editor-at-Large for HSToday. A former senior member of DHS’ Private Sector Office (PSO), Cooper has been a frequent writer and contributor to numerous media outlets. He is a Senior Fellow with GWU’s Cyber and Homeland Security Institute; a Senior Policy Principal for Homeland Security and Justice at SAS Federal and a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC. He has also served in senior positions at NASA, the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation, and several other profit and not-for-profit enterprises.

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