Hurricane Arthur Vs. Data Visualization: Supplies Riddle

Humanitarian organization Direct Relief uses mapping to visualize needs and plot the logistics of distribution before disaster strikes.

David F Carr, Editor, InformationWeek Government/Healthcare

July 3, 2014

7 Min Read
Direct Relief hurricane preparedness packs.

 Government Data + Maps: 10 Great Examples

Government Data + Maps: 10 Great Examples

Government Data + Maps: 10 Great Examples (Click image for larger view and slideshow.)

As Hurricane Arthur formed off the Atlantic coast this week, staffers at the humanitarian organization Direct Relief were watching to see whether the medical supplies they had pre-positioned in anticipation of this year's storm season would be needed.

"We have one prep pack in the immediate warning area and two others just outside," one staffer wrote in an email Wednesday, referring to the caches of supplies Direct Relief distributed, part of a plan informed by data from federal open data initiatives and the use of big-data analytics and mapping software.

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Teasing out clues to community and clinical needs, Direct Relief uses mapping to visualize needs and plot the logistics of distribution. The program particularly aims to make sure medicines are available for those suffering from chronic diseases like hypertension, diabetes, and asthma who may have been driven from their homes without their prescriptions. The agency works to secure donations of these lifesaving medicines from pharmaceutical manufacturers.

The hurricane preparedness packs comprise more than $1 million in medical resources. The sealed watertight containers are at 63 health facilities near the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, the Caribbean, Central America, and the Philippines. Each US Hurricane Preparedness Pack holds enough medical supplies to treat 100 patients for a variety of conditions, from basic trauma injuries to chronic illnesses, for a 72-hour period, during which follow-on support can be mobilized. The International Modules contain supplies to care for 5,000 people for one month. If the storm season passes without a crisis, the clinic is allowed to crack open the prep pack and add the supplies to its operational inventory.

After years of priding itself on swift response to disasters worldwide, Direct Relief has begun anticipating disaster response needs closer to home, in the US. The agency works with community healthcare clinics to make critical supplies available in the days after a storm or other disaster. In the case of Arthur, an alert went out to 19 partners in three states (Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina).

"The Direct Relief US program in many ways emerged out of the response to Hurricane Katrina -- we were primarily an international relief organization up to that point," explains Andrew Schroeder, Direct Relief's director of research and analysis. A non-governmental organization established in 1948, Direct Relief serves vulnerable communities around the world where the effects of disaster are often exacerbated by basic poverty. "What we learned in Hurricane Katrina was that there were huge holes in the official response" to disasters within the US, he says. "The needs that were not filled by federal, state, or local officials -- or, for that matter, by the free market -- produced a role for non-profit or philanthropic actors to make sure we get the resources required as quickly and efficiently as possible."

More recently, Direct Relief was active in relief efforts after Hurricane ("superstorm") Sandy hit New Jersey.

Michael Andry, CEO of Excelth, a non-profit operator of clinics for indigent populations in New Orleans and surrounding areas, says he knows little about the technology behind the program but certainly appreciates the value of the prep packs, which would have been extremely useful in the aftermath of Katrina. "We have the supplies on standby should we have to use them again," he says. "We did have one occasion to use a prep pack, during Hurricane Isaac, when a building at our Algiers clinic suffered wind and rain damage and water intrusion."


To make its operations more efficient, Direct Relief adopted SAP as its core operations and logistics system. A longstanding partnership with Federal Express allows Direct Relief to ship supplies quickly wherever they are needed.

With its interactive aid distribution maps project, Direct Relief has turned to anticipating future requirements, using analytics and mapping technologies. Hurricane relief is a natural application, since hurricanes are more predictable than earthquakes or tornadoes.

Direct Relief has been working with geographic information systems for five or six years, but what's making it more useful now is the easy availability of government data under President Obama's open government data initiatives, particularly from the Department of Health and Human Services, Schroeder says. "We've shifted our problem from finding the data, which used to be the case," he says. Instead, the challenge now is making sense of it.

Based on the uniform reporting system for aggregated health data from hospitals and other healthcare facilities, Direct Relief is able to get an overview of the prevalence of chronic conditions within a given region, as well as the facilities available in that region. Direct Relief mashes that up with data from FEMA, NOAA, and other sources as aids to planning. Direct uses technologies from both Esri and Palantir for mapping, although it uses them differently.

Palantir provides mapping functionality as one mode of data visualization, but "to call it a mapping application misses the bigger data integration aspect," says Palantir philanthropic engineer Brian Fishman. In keeping with the big data style of analytics, Palantir can ingest many data sources in multiple formats and make sense of them. And even in the realm of maps, the goal is integration, Fishman says. "You don't have to go to one mapping platform to see where the clinics are and another map to see where is the hurricane storm surge -- all that information is in one place."

Founded by veterans of Paypal, Palantir adapted software originally developed for fraud detection to meet many other purposes, including counter-terrorism.

Esri's ArcGIS is the tool of choice for published geographical information like this map of Direct Relief hurricane preparedness partners in the southeastern US, as well as Haiti, Jamaica, and Central America. Schroeder says he also uses Esri's technology for "spatial modeling at a higher level than available in Palantir, or regression analysis -- how different factors relate to one another. If I'm trying to see the poverty in a region versus the proportion of people who are elderly, the analysis platform for that is in Esri."

In both cases, the technology choices are dictated partly by the generosity of the vendors. Esri makes its software available, not for free, but at an extreme discount, Schroeder says. Palantir's Fishman said the firm works with Direct Relief as part of a commitment to philanthropy it made through its work with the Clinton Global Initiative. In addition to supporting Direct Relief's analysis and planning applications, Palantir helped it develop a mobile application used for real time data gathering and analysis after Hurricane Sandy. The same app was pressed into use, over satellite phones, after Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines last year.

"We're putting big-data tools into the hands of first responders in the world, in response to events," Schroeder says. The goal is what both military and humanitarian organizations call "situational awareness," the ability to understand accurately what's happening on the ground in the midst of a chaos. "This lets us do work in real time, wherever events happen," Schroeder says.

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About the Author(s)

David F Carr

Editor, InformationWeek Government/Healthcare

David F. Carr oversees InformationWeek's coverage of government and healthcare IT. He previously led coverage of social business and education technologies and continues to contribute in those areas. He is the editor of Social Collaboration for Dummies (Wiley, Oct. 2013) and was the social business track chair for UBM's E2 conference in 2012 and 2013. He is a frequent speaker and panel moderator at industry events. David is a former Technology Editor of Baseline Magazine and Internet World magazine and has freelanced for publications including CIO Magazine, CIO Insight, and Defense Systems. He has also worked as a web consultant and is the author of several WordPress plugins, including Facebook Tab Manager and RSVPMaker. David works from a home office in Coral Springs, Florida. Contact him at [email protected]and follow him at @davidfcarr.

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