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Big Data Supports Superstorm Sandy Relief Efforts

Data integration, visualization and analysis tools help get medical help to people devastated by natural disasters like Sandy or Haiti's earthquake.

Natural disasters have a nasty habit of disrupting the natural flow of things. Damaged transportation systems and manufacturing facilities slow -- or stop entirely -- the movement of essential goods and services, including food, fuel, water and medicine.

Direct Relief International is a nonprofit medical relief organization that works with more than 1,000 U.S. health clinics to provide free medications during emergencies, such as Superstorm Sandy that devastated sections of the East Coast. The organization operates in more than 70 countries, and was a large supplier of medicine to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.

One of Direct Relief's challenges is how to meet the needs of disaster victims in geographically disperse regions. To do so, it leverages a variety of information technology, including an SAP transactional system to plan allocation of resources, receipt of goods and other logistics.

"We turned on SAP about five years ago -- that part is our base system level," said Andrew Schroeder, Direct Relief's director of research and analysis, in a phone interview with InformationWeek.

[ Big data is playing a growing role in healthcare. See Healthcare Data Modeling Gets Hadoop Boost. ]

The nonprofit pulls in data from a variety of government sources, including the National Weather Service, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). It also has a geographic information system (GIS) for storing, analyzing and visualizing maps, charts and reports from around the globe. Analytics software from Palantir Technologies, a startup that specializes in big data tools to help organizations examine large sets of disparate information, sits on top of the stack.

Parts of Direct Relief's data management system are quite new. For instance, the agency worked with Palantir for about eight months to get the company's software integrated with Direct Relief's system -- and finished the job just in time for Superstorm Sandy.

"We'd been in the prototype stage until maybe a couple of weeks ago. It was fortuitous that we had gotten far enough that we could put it to work," said Schroeder.

The upgraded system made it easier for Direct Relief to contact its pharmacy partners, some of whom were hard to reach when Sandy hit.

"We don't have people on the ground who can figure out what's going on, so we used this system to narrow in on a power outage that was the likely cause of obstruction of service," Schroeder said.

Just as a natural disaster's impact varies by region, the medical needs of disaster victims vary as well.

"In Haiti right now, where we're also dealing with this (hurricane), they're worried about a cholera outbreak and other kinds of waterborne illness. People are washed out of their homes. And a lot of people haven't yet fully recovered from the earthquake in 2010," said Schroeder.

In the United States, Sandy created a different set of problems.

"The issue is really about people who have chronic hypertension, asthma and diabetes. They need to be able to go back to their primary healthcare centers," Schroeder said. "Often they depend on reduced-price or free medicine through their primary healthcare doctor. If they're separated from that for any length of time, you start to get high risks of complications from chronic conditions."

One of Direct Relief's partners is RX Response, an emergency response program designed to keep the commercial pharmacy network running during public health emergencies.

"They publish status updates on commercial pharmacies, so we can look at hotspots where we're seeing outages or closures in the pharmacy network, and how that relates to our clinical network," said Schroeder.

Superstorm Sandy is history, but its effects will be felt for some time.

"Recovery from these things takes quite a while, particularly for people who were vulnerable to begin with," Schroeder said.

InformationWeek is conducting our annual Outlook Survey to explore how IT leaders are planning their priorities and budgets for 2013. The results of the survey will appear in an upcoming issue as well as in an in-depth report. Take our InformationWeek 2013 Outlook Survey now and enter to win one Samsung Series 5 Chromebook. Survey ends Nov. 19.

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