Google: Lack of open standards hampers information sharing in disasters

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“To be easily integrated and disseminated in the event of a crisis, emergency information must be readily available — in open formats, open licensing structures and already online — in advance of a disaster. Otherwise, there can be delays in getting information out. Each extra step — uploading, emailing, downloading, publishing or putting on a site — can keep critical information from getting to people in a timely manner,” said Matthew Stepka, Google’s vice president of technology for social impact.

For example, setting up the Hurricane Sandy crisis map required Google to manually copy and paste information about public hazards from PDFs at government websites. When the data became obsolete, Google had to request an updated version from the agency through email and spend time reloading and integrating the information. Stepka mentioned that in other crises, the company has resorted to gathering emergency information from the government in formats that are difficult to capture in real-time — such as PDFs — and translating them into open standards.

According to Stepka, more than 15 million users visited Hurricane Sandy crisis maps during the disaster. Stepka commended the White House for issuing an executive order last month that would require agencies to release machine-readable data, making it easier for open-source platforms to acquire and update in real time.

Rep. Susan Brooks (R-Ind.), the chairwoman of the House subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, met with representatives of Google and Palantir, a software company, in Silicon Valley earlier this year to discuss ways in which new technologies are aiding in disaster recovery.

“It gave me hope and filled me with excitement to sit with representatives from these companies and talk not only about what they are doing, but what they are planning and thinking about for the future,” Brooks said.

The congresswoman recalled how Indiana state officials used Facebook and Twitter to relay information to the public during a severe flood in her district last April. Brooks also mentioned the dangers of misleading or incorrect information being disseminated to vulnerable public.

“While there are numerous examples of how social media and new technology have enhanced emergency management activities, I would be remiss to not point out that there are pitfalls of which we need to be wary. For example, recent events have shown us how misleading, faulty or malicious information can escalate quickly on social media sites and negatively affect response efforts,” said Brooks.

A report came out last week from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that found a “lack of clarity” among employees on how to use social media during Hurricane Irene. Social media data is an unofficial source of information and officials are still concerned over issues with data verification and reliability.

But Google and other technology companies said crowdsourcing, or soliciting information from the public, was vital to their emergency response tools.

“Crowdsourcing that information is necessary — because sometimes, the authorities are not going to have everything you need to know,” said Google’s Stepka, who said authorities probably could not list which local stations have gasoline, but the public could provide detailed, timely information.

Google did account for the fact that existing security standards would pose a challenge to government agencies when it came to sharing their data.

“It does require that government organizations take the data they have and take the effort to change it so it can be available through these secure protocols, and I think that does require some resources,” said Stepka.