From Sunday through Thursday this past week, Direct Relief’s initial post-disaster assessment team visited clinical healthcare partners around the New York area to determine the scope of damage and scale of needs.
In many cases the team was confronted with chaotic situations that required rapid orientation on the ground. Clinics had just re-opened their doors after a week of flooding and power outages and struggled to shore up their systems. Families and individuals who themselves had been without power or displaced from their homes were turning up in highly variable numbers with a range of significant health problems.
Fuel shortages slowed transport in many cases to a trickle. Rumors flew of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and city-led efforts as well as ad hoc organizations being formed to conduct outreach efforts in the hardest hit areas. New York lay blanketed with a thick “fog of war” which threatened to impede efficient humanitarian response.
To assist our on-the-ground assessment efforts, Direct Relief deployed an early-stage prototype of Palantir’s mobile “blue force tracking” application for Android phones, which provides location-based information of those on the ground. Using a net of Nexus handsets, the team maintained constant, accurately geo-referenced contact with our base station in Santa Barbara.
Data was collected on the phones in the form of survey entries, Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates and images, and transmitted in real time to analysts using Palantir who used the data to study the changing situation and make recommendations for action. Field assessment teams received real-time guidance on clinic shipping histories, nearby event reports from Healthmap and other sources, as well as awareness of essential contacts.
Although in many ways this was really a pilot test of the system, mobile information tools from Palantir brought tremendous intelligence to bear on field-based humanitarian assessment and opened the promise of extending our analytic capacities more directly into events as they happen.
Knowledge of what is happening in areas affected by Superstorm Sandy and how Direct Relief’s actions will impact emergency response goals and objectives is critical to making intelligent decisions on the ground. With a little help from technology, Direct Relief is able to build situational awareness – an important, but often elusive element of successful decision-making in emergency response contexts.