Big Data vs. Big Storm: New Technology Informs Hurricane Sandy Preparedness, Response

 Direct Relief gets help from Palantir to transform humanitarian relief with powerful analytical tools, enabling faster and more precise emergency response.

SANTA BARBARA, Calif., Oct. 29 – As Hurricane Sandy barrels up the East Coast, Direct Relief is working with technology partners at Palantir to assess needs, determine likely emergency scenarios, and mount a targeted response for health clinic partners in the path of the storm.

Because of the huge geographic area and population potentially affected by the storm — an estimated 60 million people – a key priority is to identify people and communities that are most at risk.

Palo Alto-based company, Palantir, specializes in data integration, visualization and analysis tools that allow Direct Relief to pull together massive amounts of information sources into a common framework to better understand, visualize, plan, and manage for complex emergencies, including Hurricane Sandy.

A critical component which enables Direct Relief’s ability to mount an effective response is their understanding of social vulnerability: who is at risk, where, and why? Not everyone within a hurricane’s path is equally at risk.

Extensive research by Dr. Susan Cutter of the University of South Carolina regarding past hurricanes and other emergencies has identified over 30 factors that affect communities’ vulnerability in such events, including an area’s natural and built environment, its rural or urban character, and the demographic composition and income levels of the population. In general, vulnerability is greater among people at age extremes (young and old), with low incomes, members of minority populations, and those with special health or medical needs.

“Palantir’s analytical and data visualization tools are helping Direct Relief pinpoint our clinic partners located in socially vulnerable populations, and in flood risk zones as they relate to  Hurricane Sandy, allowing us to better anticipate the needs for essential medicines in emergencies,” said Andrew Schroeder, Direct of Research and Analysis at Direct Relief.

“In addition we can assess the likely scenarios for population movement which may stretch the resources of inland primary care health centers in the event of evacuation.  The better the information the better we can understand and manage complex problems in near real time.”

The general principle that good information is needed to make good decisions is particularly true in emergencies, as situations can shift rapidly and information flow can be interrupted.

Among the challenges in emergencies is the need to make rapid decisions to deploy resources—equipment, personnel, money, food, water, shelter supplies, and health resources—occurs just as current, precise information becomes harder to obtain and distribution channels become damaged.

A “fog of war” analog exists in emergencies; Direct Relief’s preparedness and response efforts focus on building information channels, working consistently with the nonprofit health centers and clinics that serve vulnerable people in high-risk hurricane areas, pre-positioning essential health resources in the areas, and building a robust distribution channel to infuse additional resources as circumstances warrant.

Rather than treating these dimensions of Direct Relief’s disaster response as separate and distinct, Palantir pulls them all for us into a continuous braid of analytic workflows to improve the overall intelligence and efficiency of our response.

Starting, for example, with a geographic layer showing county-level values of the social vulnerability index and flood-related damage estimates from the University of South Carolina’s Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute, Direct Relief builds statistical correlations with data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on disease prevalence rates to score counties in terms of their health risks, population needs and disaster impacts.

Pulling that analysis directly into a map view to see where the most at-risk counties are located, Direct Relief can cross reference with clinical addresses and storm scenarios to prioritize problem areas and response requirements. Rapid, highly targeted analysis of historical product flows for health centers in these risk zones focuses attention on specific material needs.

In addition to emergency response efforts, Direct Relief pre-positions Hurricane Preparedness Packs in advance of the start of hurricane season across nine U.S. states and seven countries most likely to be affected during hurricane season.

The Hurricane Preparedness program the largest such noprofit program in the U.S., pre-positions large quantities of medicines and supplies at health centers, clinics and hospitals in at-risk areas to treat vulnerable people during emergencies. The pre-positioning of these medical resources is another key component of Direct Relief’s emergency relief efforts and ongoing assistance to partner clinics to facilitate a fast, efficient response when a disaster strikes. In the U.S. 50 Hurricane Packs are currently in place and stand ready to be deployed in an emergency.

The contents of the prep packs are versatile and can be used for acute care as well as to treat patients with chronic diseases should they become displaced by storms and lose access to their medications or medical care. Each U.S.-bound pack contains enough medicines and supplies to treat 100 patients for three to five days after a hurricane hits. The modules shipped internationally are much larger, containing enough supplies to treat 1,000 people for a month following a disaster.

Direct Relief supplies the Hurricane Prep Packs with donations from pharmaceutical and medical corporations and through a long-standing relationship with FedEx to assist in shipping and logistics. The Prep Packs are provided free of charge to the healthcare facilities.

About Direct Relief International
Direct Relief International is a leading medical relief organization, active in all 50 states and in 70 countries. It works with more than 1,000 health clinics across the U.S. to assist in emergencies and an ongoing basis, providing them with free medications for people in need. The organization has been among the world’s largest medical suppliers in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, has top charity ratings, including four-star and “top-notch” rating from Charity Navigator, and a 100% fundraising efficiency rating from Forbes magazine. For more information visit