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10/31/2012
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Hurricane Sandy: Government Data Tools Assist

Federal, state, and local information technology and data are on the case in the ongoing recovery from Hurricane Sandy.

American Red Cross Social Media Command Center
American Red Cross Social Media Command Center
(click image for larger view and for slideshow)
From New York City's mobile emergency alert system to the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency providing satellite imagery to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration supercomputers to a new government data-powered alert service from Google, government technology is playing a critical role in responding to Hurricane Sandy.

On Wednesday, Google released a new service, Public Alerts, which is powered largely by government data. The service pulls in data from a network of partners that include the National Weather Service and the United States Geological Survey in an effort to help the public prepare for and react to disasters like Sandy.

Public Alerts, built by Google's Crisis Response team, can warn users of impending disasters and also provide information on disaster recovery. Google has already integrated Public Alerts into other products -- Android's new Google Now app will display alerts directly to users' mobile devices in the case of a nearby emergency. Users will be able to learn more about the alert by clicking a "More Info" link. Public Alerts is also integrated with Google Maps to show emergency warnings in other areas, and with Google Search to show alerts when users search for information on a disaster.

[ A strong DR plan is important, but a bulletproof one might be missing the point. Read more at Superstorm Sandy Lessons: 100% Uptime Isn't Always Worth It. ]

For an example of how Google Alerts works, search for "Hurricane Sandy" on Google. The site will link to a Google Crisis Map with information on things like power outages and shelters, state level information from 13 different states, a Ready.gov page titled "What to do after a hurricane," and New York City alerts.

New York City has been relying heavily on open data after the storm. The city's Transit Tracker system provides up-to-date information on transportation outages in the New York metro area. New York City also has its own mobile alert system that was activated during the storm.

Even before the storm, government tech was busy in preparation. NOAA computers ran weather model simulations like the National Weather Service's highly respected Global Forecast System (GFS) model to predict the storm's track, while the Naval Research Laboratory ran the U.S. Navy's Operational Global Atmospheric Prediction System (NOGAPS) model. Computer models, which help inform the official forecasts of the National Hurricane Center and other forecasters, were fairly accurate with Sandy, predicting the storm's track into New Jersey days before landfall and thus ensuring that areas along Sandy's path had time to prepare for the worst.

Government websites remain loaded with information about Sandy and its aftermath. Hurricanes.gov, for example, allowed the public to see gobs of data on Sandy, from a graphical forecasted track to current observations to warnings and even text-based forecast discussions. It continues to link to public advisories on Sandy's remnants. FEMA, meanwhile, has been actively updating the public via social media. Ready.gov provides hurricane preparation and response tips.

Finally, the recovery is government-tech heavy as well. FEMA and the National Guard are using imagery from, among other places, intelligence agencies like the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and the National Reconnaissance Office to show the disaster relief agencies in the hardest-hit locations and how to get there without encountering storm-related obstacles.

More than half of federal agencies are saving money with cloud computing, but security, compatibility, and skills present huge problems, according to our survey. Also in the Cloud Business Case issue of InformationWeek Government: President Obama's record on IT strategy is long on vision but short on results. (Free registration required.)

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