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Disaster Relief: There's an App for That

By Samantha Kramer, AccuWeather.com Staff Writer
August 24, 2012; 2:10 PM

When a natural disaster strikes, the public is bombarded with news about how strong the winds are, how high the flooding gets, or how many people are forced to evacuate.

What many don't hear about, however, is where all the evacuees go.

And that's because we aren't exactly sure, according to Richard Garfield, the founding director of the Health and Nutrition Tracking Service at the World Health Organization. This creates a problem for relief aid agencies. If they don't know where the people are that need aid, they aren't able to provide it.

Some agencies have taken advantage of the internet to reconnect those who have been forced to flee in times of disaster. The American Red Cross developed a web service called "Safe and Well" that allows disaster victims to register themselves as "OK" or search in a database for loved ones.

The pilot program was developed during Hurricane Katrina, and since then there has been approximately 345,000 searches with more than half of those "matched" -- where users successfully get in touch with whomever they were searching for.

American Red Cross Spokeswoman Anne Marie Borrego said there is also a mobile version of "Safe and Well" which permits people on-the-go to update their status to family and friends.

The recent wildfires in Colorado have proved an increase in the demand for credible tracking services, she said. Within the last 30 days, there has been over 1,000 new registrations for "Safe and Well."

Researchers are also looking into using cell phone records as a way to track population movements. This can be helpful for both the aid agencies and the family and friends looking to reconnect with loved ones after a disaster.

"Mobile phone data helps to understand when and how people commute or travel," Networks Researcher Vincent Blondel wrote in an email. "This can be done real-time, and so the information can be used to better prepare and secure major cultural events."

Researchers from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden made progress when they analyzed the cell phone records of victims in the 2010 earthquake in Haiti to find where they fled. The study opened up the possibility of using similar tracking in the United States.

But it's not that simple for two reasons, Garfield said.

First, the population is much more affluent than Haiti's -- meaning they have more variety and more places to go that makes their movements difficult to predict, he said.

Second, many see what would be an effort to help people as a major invasion of privacy.

"There's a whole lot of stuff in disaster preparedness that ought to be done," Garfield said. "But there's privacy concerns. People are so upset about the abuse of their information online, but sometimes it's in your best interest."

Though many may not realize it, these efforts are already being put in effect on a smaller scale.

Garfield said that parks like Yellowstone and Disney are monitoring cell phone use to figure out which entrances to open and close based on the amount of crowding in certain areas. And though people tend to feel "invaded," Garfield said that with these systems, only the location is recorded -- they're not digging into people's personal lives.

"This is a very smart use of real-time information that people are usually very nervous about. They feel like 'Somebody is snooping on me,' but they're not," he said. "The potential for these systems is great. It's a timely, almost-free indicator of human activity changing every few minutes."

Garfield added that these systems could even be implemented for traffic jams or evacuation routes. Because they're real-time, appropriate messages could be relayed to people to tell them if a road is backed up and where to go from there.

The U.S. still has a long way to go in terms of developing quick, easy ways to find victims of natural disasters, he said, but communication and technology has improved enough to assure that a disaster like Hurricane Katrina never happens again.

Garfield said that although Katrina doesn't parallel to the Haiti earthquake, the United States' response to relief aid was a good indicator of how we well we would respond if another disaster were to strike home in the near future.

"The Haitian earthquake was a test. U.S. agencies from the Center for Disease Control and others mobilized in a very high scale much more effectively," he said. "We were tested with Katrina and failed. But people don't know how much coordination has improved."

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