On August 29th, 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast becoming the costliest and one of the deadliest natural disasters in United States history. Many remember FEMA, state and local officials nervously struggling with the scale of the disaster while the human suffering and toll was making national and international headlines. In the aftermath, serious questions were raised regarding US preparedness.
Here's the problem with natural disasters: they are random events and no amount of planning is sufficient. The best conceivable responses manage the impact through effective situational command and coordination of personnel and resources leading up to, during, and especially after the disaster. Proper response and optimal decisioning demands real time access to the information, ideas, and approaches to deal with these highly unpredictable and fluid situations. In New Orleans, FEMA needed every conceivable idea and potential solution for temporary housing, better food distribution, people transport, and flooding containment. The opportunity costs of ideas not surfaced or considered early in these emergency situations could be substantial. The current pandemic threat should serve as a vivid reminder that we need conventional and unconventional thinking to respond to challenges ahead.
The rapid evolution of communications, crowdsourcing, and social networking technologies has created an extraordinary opportunity to significantly advance the tools available to organizations that engage in the most serious of these disasters. FEMA, Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), Red Cross and others needs to pay particular attention to the potential of these technologies to significantly improve the effectiveness of response efforts.
Many storied examples already exist like users "Twittering" critical information from the front lines of the California wildfires, globalgiving.org quickly raising and routing donations for reconstruction of clinics after natural disasters, and online communities self organizing to fill vital communications needs in times of emergency. A few days ago, InnoCentive posted a Challenge to quickly identify whether airport passenger screening can be enhanced to detect contagions, clearly a response to H1N1 Influenza pandemic concerns.
InnoCentive is committed to making its InnoCentive.com crowdsourcing capability and access to its 175,000 strong Global Solver Community available "on demand" to work with disaster response agencies. Coupled with other Web 2.0 providers, FEMA and other organizations could have instantaneous access to hundreds of thousands of virtual responders, including scientists, engineers, healthcare professionals, and others ... all ready, willing, and able to lend much needed support.
These systems could be "hard wired" for use by selected agencies and organizations in times of natural or manmade disaster, dramatically improving response effectiveness. This Emergency Response 2.0 Toolkit should be developed and orchestrated BEFORE the next natural disaster.
We call on FEMA and other agencies to survey the landscape of communication, crowdsourcing, and social networking tools available and to put in place the strategies, linkages, and training necessary to immediately leverage these capabilities in times of need. Let's not wait until next Hurricane Katrina, Tsunami, Earthquake, or Global Pandemic to recognize the ability of people everywhere to have an extraordinarily positive impact in these Emergency Response situations.