Disaster maps

Posted in Hacking, Maps, Technology trends at 2:27 pm by ducky

I was in San Jose when the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake hit, and I remember that nobody knew what was going on for several days. I have an idea for how to disseminate information better in a disaster, leveraging the power of the Internet and the masses.

I envision a set of maps associated with a disaster: ones for the status of phone, water, natural gas, electricity, sewer, current safety risks, etc. For example, where the phones are working just fine, the phone map shows green. Where the phone system is up, but the lines are overloaded, the phone map shows yellow. Where the phones are completely dead, the phone map shows red. Where the electricity is out, the power map shows red.

To make a report, someone with knowledge — let’s call her Betsy — would go to the disaster site, click on a location, and see a very simple pop-up form asking about phone, water, gas, electricity, etc. She would fill in what she knows about that location, and submit. That information would go to several sets of servers (geographically distributed so that they won’t all go out simultaneously), which would stuff the update in their databases. That information would be used to update the maps: a dot would appear at the location Betsy reported.

How does Betsy connect to the Internet, if there’s a disaster?

  1. She can move herself out of the disaster area. (Many disasters are highly localized.) Perhaps she was downtown, where the phones were out, and then rode her bicycle home, to where everything was fine. She could report on both downtown and her home. Or maybe Betsy is a pilot and overflew the affected area.
  2. She could be some place unaffected, but take a message from someone in the disaster area. Sometimes there is intermittent communication available, even in a disaster area. After the earthquake, our phone was up but had a busy signal due to so many people calling out. What you are supposed to do in that situation is to make one phone call to someone out of state, and have them contact everybody else. So I would phone Betsy, give her the information, and have her report the information.
  3. Internet service, because of its very nature, can be very robust. I’ve heard of occasions where people couldn’t use the phones, but could use the Internet.

One obvious concern is about spam or vandalism. I think Wikipedia has shown that with the right tools, community involvement can keep spam and vandalism at a minimum. There would need to be a way for people to question a report and have that reflected in the map. For example, the dot for the report might become more transparent the more people questioned it.

The disaster site could have many more things on it, depending upon the type of disaster: aerial photographs, geology/hydrology maps, information about locations to get help, information about locations to volunteer help, topology maps (useful in floods), etc.

What would be needed to pull this off?

  • At least two servers, preferably at least three, that are geographically separated.
  • A big honkin’ database that can be synchronized between the servers.
  • Presentation servers, which work at displaying the information. There could be a Google Maps version, a Yahoo Maps version, a Microsoft version, etc.
  • A way for the database servers and the presentation servers to talk to each other.
  • Some sort of governance structure. Somebody is going to have to make decisions about what information is appropriate for that disaster. (Hydrology maps might not be useful in a fire.) Somebody is going to have to be in communication with the presentation servers to coordinate presenting the information. Somebody is going to have to make final decisions on vandalism. This governance structure could be somebody like the International Red Cross or something like the Wikimedia Foundation.
  • Buy-in from various institutions to publicize the site in the event of a disaster. There’s no point in the site existing if nobody knows about it, but if Google, Yahoo, MSN, and AOL all put links to the site when a disaster hit, that would be excellent.

I almost did this project for an MS thesis project, but decided against it, so I’m posting the idea here in the hopes that someone could run with it. I don’t foresee having the time myself.

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