Could big data couple with mobile tech to save lives in a disaster?

Most articles about big data have focused on big data technologies or how it can help businesses boost their profits. However big data can also be used by nonprofits and public agencies to improve disaster responsiveness.

When a disaster strikes, chaos often ensues, and since relief workers can't be everywhere at once to see where the most damage is, determining how to distribute resources can be difficult.

Most emergency managers must rely on whatever current news source they have and their own experiences in previous situations to make response decisions. As a result, certain neighbourhoods may not get the relief they need as quickly as they would have if emergency managers had a clearer picture of the situation.

How big data can help

Now, thanks to big data technologies like Hadoop and to mobile technologies, relief organisations are starting to get that clearer picture that they need.

Tom Groenfeldt, in a Forbes article, noted that, "The UN's Global Pulse is using a network of innovation labs to see how data tracking human behaviour might improve responses to poverty, disease and humanitarian crises." For example, the UN is exploring the possibility of using cellphone data to track the migration of people after a natural disaster in real time. Relief workers can use this data to bring aid to people faster.

Many other agencies have also developed technologies to improve their relief efforts. Groenfeldt said that, "Stockholm-based Flowminder analyses aggregated phone location data to help relief agencies in emergencies. The African Development Bank is using GeoPoll, a technology developed by Mobile Accord, which serves the public and nonprofit sectors, while Canadian Groupsia has developed an open source platform for information sharing."

During Superstorm Sandy, FEMA created a team made up of public agencies and private companies to help in its disaster response. Two of the organisations, Geeks Without Bounds and Splunk4Good, Splunk's charity arm, teamed up on a social media analysis project. The project scoured through hashtags on Twitter and photos on Instagram as well as key words, such as power, food and water to determine locations where supplies were needed the most.

Looking to the future

Use of big data analytics in disaster response is still fairly new, and many agencies will have to work to change their culture in order to accept using data in their efforts. Some agencies may not have the resources available to complete data analysis, which is where partnerships with private companies can be particularly beneficial.

Despite the challenges, however, big data has a big future in emergency management. As more case studies arise and research is completed by organisations like the UN, emergency managers will get more confident in using data and eventually start to see it as a valuable route to take, rather than simply an interesting idea.

A greater emphasis on data will, of course, require bringing in data analysts and experts to help interpret the data. Groenfeldt noted that, "A trawl of online job sites at the UN and other agencies brings up a lot of openings for information officers, data warehouse experts and data analysts."

Data, of course, won't be the only tool emergency managers rely on, as human wisdom will still be important to interpret the data and recognise when data isn't telling the complete story, but as these examples show, big data could have as big an impact on the nonprofit sector as it has on the private sector.

Michele Nemschoff is vice president of corporate marketing at big data platform solutions firm MapR Technologies.