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Carnegie Mellon Silicon Valley Tackles Tech-Driven Disaster Management

Carnegie Mellon Silicon Valley is hosting two events back to back to examine how new technologies can play a role in disaster management situations. The invitation-only Disaster Management Workshop, starting March 26, will bring together government agencies, first responders, NGOs, companies, and academia to talk about the problem of disaster management in general and identify opportunities for entities to collaborate. Then in the afternoon, the event opens to the public as a free barcamp, called CrisisCampSiliconValley.

Martin Griss, director of Carnegie Mellon Silicon, as well as the associate dean for the College of Engineering and director of the CyLab Mobility Research Center, predicted that the first day's event will result in the articulation of several projects that could then be assembled in part during the CrisisCamp. A barcamp is a workshop structure that allows the participants--usually developers--to provide the content for the program they're attending.

"The big change we're seeing in disaster management over the last year or so is that consumer grade technology is becoming powerful and ubiquitous," said Griss. "People are beginning to use smart phones, WiFi, Facebook, and Twitter to communicate with each other on the ground in the disasters--between citizens and emergency responders and citizens on ground and the rest of the world. So the big theme is what can these new technologies do to make disaster response and hence preparation more effective?"

The earthquake devastation in Haiti provides a good example of how disaster management is changing with the application of pervasive technologies, Griss pointed out. "People published in SMS code--the lowest common denominator that usually works in many of these situations. People noticed a collapsed building or a building on fire and sent messages in English or Creole to central groups that redistributed the messages out to others, who helped translate them or provide additional details. Groups formed and quickly communicated and got the entire Creole Diaspora engaged," he said. "We're going to talk about what's possible. How robust are these things? Which things can we depend on? What do we need to do to prepare to use them?"

It's possible, he said, that several disaster management-oriented tools could come out as a result of the two events, such as a small iPhone app that could be distributed through the App Store. "That would allow anyone to get it, which was much harder to do before."

The main campus of Carnegie-Mellon provided an example earlier this year of how nimble collaboration and simple interoperability can aid people in a crisis situation. In 2009 faculty and students had created iBurgh, an iPhone app that allows people to report potholes to city government. Then in February 2010, as snow piled up in Pittsburgh, the same professor involved in creating iBurgh teamed up with a PhD candidate and two undergrads to hammer out a crowdsourcing site, called "How's My Street?" using some of the same components to allow people to report conditions on snow-packed roads and to request city action in clearing streets.

"That was put together in a day and a half or two days because the components were there and they're easier to integrate than before," Griss said.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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