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When 311 Broke: Gustav's Missed Opportunities

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By Nancy Scola

New Orleans' levees may not have broken during the recent Hurricane Gustav, but something else certainly did. The phone-based 311 system that the city activated to register evacuees collapsed under the all too predictable weight of tens of thousands of people needing help leaving the city. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal finally told frustrated residents just to get out and register "on the back end" -- i.e., wherever they happened to end up.

It didn't have to happen that way. The 311 system -- the same "non-emergency" hotline residents call in normal times to report a dead dog in the road or a broken-down truck blocking an alley -- isn't the best or the only option the world has devised for tracking people in crisis. There are good ideas out there for keeping tabs on displaced people and connecting what's most crucial in those moments -- information on basic services, a way of tracking friends and family, and even a way of proving identity. Some I found in a few minutes of Googling. Many, in fact, are found in Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century or in the Worldchanging archives. None, admittedly, are perfect matches for the Gulf Coast. But they all point the imagination toward what's possible beyond a rudimentary phone hotline. Here are a few leads:

Hardware-based: Twenty years ago, the U.N. was struggling to keep track of the three-quarters of a million people streaming out of Kosovo and into neighboring countries and points abroad. Pen and paper wasn't cutting it, and that's when some Europe-based employees of Microsoft and other tech companies stepped in. They came up with the innovative Refugee Field Kit, which consisted of a metal box containing a laptop, a camera and an ID card printer. With it, volunteers and aide works could well-equip fleeing people for their eventual reconnection. The U.N. loved it, and the Refugee Field Kit has since been used in similar crises around the world.

Software-based: HELIOS is powerful logistic software used to catalog, track and deliver supplies to disaster victims. Built by the Fritz Institute in cooperation with the Red Cross/Red Crescent, the focus of HELIOS is tracking stuff, not people. But the principles behind it -- and the institute's research, including on how the local population reacted to Hurricane Katrina -- point to the best practices for managing information in times of crisis. (Some versions of the software, it seems, can also run online, when and where the Internet is available.)

Web-based: The South-East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami Blog, a.k.a SEA-EAT Blog, served as an information clearinghouse for the devastating 2004 tsunami in that region. The volunteer-operated site disseminated important information at a remarkable clip. Still, organizers mused even in the days just after the storm that a more open and editable wiki might have been a better approach. Some of the lessons from SEA-EAT can be seen put to work in the Gustav Information Center (now rebranded the Hurricane Information Center), a site based on the Ning social-networking platform. The volunteer-run hub, accessible from any computer with an Internet hookup, is rich with pointers to the various information resources available elsewhere on the web.

Imagine Gustav had turned out to be Katrina redux, as looked entirely possible for several days. (Remember Mayor Ray Nagin's warning that it would prove to be "the mother of all storms"?) The failure to manage information would have been even more glaring. Step one is recognizing that coping with information needs are a critical part of disaster preparedness. In setting up 311 to register evacuees, New Orleans made it that far. But step two awaits: identifying the best tools for the job.

Nancy Scola is a Brooklyn-based writer, blogger, and editor who focuses on the place where technology meets culture. She's worked in the past on Capitol Hill, in presidential politics, and in progressive radio.

Photo credit: flickr/astrobuddha, Creative Commons license.

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