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The vital role of tech and information in responding to Hurricane Harvey
The importance of scarcity is drawn into sharp contrast during national emergencies and disasters. Things we ordinarily take for granted — ready access to food, water, fuel, and shelter — are suddenly thrown into short supply while access to other resources such as — emergency services — becomes paramount. The line between want and need is starkly redrawn.
One of the most important scarce resources in these cases is information. The disaster in Houston demonstrates that when it comes to the scarcity of information during natural disasters, government and industry both have taken lessons from recent past storms to heart. I say this without meaning to understate the failures that have occurred during Hurricane Harvey. From overwhelmed 911 call centers to counties where nearly the entire cellular infrastructure failed during the height of the storm, there have been failures, lessons to be learned, and responses to be improved. But by and large, and especially compared to past storms, communications infrastructure of all sorts has performed well during, and has been a vital tool in responding to, Harvey.
Traditional lines of communication
The starting point for this response has been the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Before the storm, the FCC prepositioned engineers and technicians in Houston to assist with maintaining the infrastructure and response coordination. Perhaps more importantly, the FCC activated its Disaster Information Reporting System to collect and share information about infrastructure outages. This information has proved important to the technical community as it works to keep information flowing into and out of Houston. As I have watched the response to the storm on various mailing lists, the FCC’s regular reports have helped direct resources and efforts and allowed stakeholders to coordinate their efforts. This information has also been important to those seeking information in Houston — to know where to obtain information — as well as to people elsewhere.
The FCC has also called on carriers to provide assistance in ensuring continued access to communications infrastructure — a call that the carriers have answered. All the carriers have deployed extensive resources to the region to keep their infrastructure running. This includes countless engineers and technicians on the ground in Houston — men and women whose job it is to head into the most devastated areas, literally during the storm, to get fallen infrastructure back up off the ground. And the carriers are also working to keep individual residents connected to that infrastructure. For instance, Verizon is deploying mobile infrastructure not just to keep cell towers running — or to expeditiously restore service — but also to deploy generators and computer workstations to neighborhoods without power so residents can charge their devices to communicate with their families. Carriers and the FCC are also working together to route telephone connections around damaged infrastructure, waiving regulatory requirements and fees to allow telephone numbers to be ported to remote switching centers so that service can be restored.
Local and national news have also performed commendable services. Stories abound about heroic anchors and news crews heading toward danger to report, often risking their own lives for others. This is in stark contrast to Hurricane Katrina, when it took days for crews just to get into, and to start getting news out of, New Orleans. The story has been different this time around, with local broadcasters keeping information flowing locally to the residents of Houston and national networks bringing information to the rest of the country.
New lines of communication
We have also seen the importance of newer communications platforms in Houston. Social media has been an incredible hub for information. Crucially, and unlike in any past event of comparable magnitude, social media has allowed critical information to flow in many directions. As emergency call centers were overwhelmed, information about how to contact the Coast Guard could be pushed out; as the Coast Guard was unable to reach some individuals, volunteers were able to answer calls for help. This is an unprecedented level of coordination — and it came about organically, a generative result of modern communications technology.
The near-ubiquitous use of mobile, pocket-based communications platforms also reminds us of the inherently more robust and flexible nature of the Voice over Internet Protocol. Telephone calls take longer to make and respond to and consume far more resources than tweets and text messages. They also rely on synchronous communications — both parties need to be present on either end of the line to call for help. But a 140 character tweet or text message can convey all the necessary information one needs to call for or provide assistance. It requires exceptionally little of the network resource. And, unlike a phone call, if the network is unavailable, the message will be queued and sent once the network is available.
Continued innovation in the smartphone ecosystem has also played an important role in keeping information flowing during the disaster in Houston. This goes beyond the advent of social media and the deployment of 4G networks. Simple things like improved battery life and the standardization of USB-powered battery charging cables has dramatically increased the usefulness of cell phones during major crises.
I am writing this post as I wait for a flight at Chicago O’Hare. A flight to Houston is boarding nearby, which has given me the opportunity to talk to some residents who are returning to their homes. To the person, they have a good sense of what they are returning to — from how they are getting to where they are going to the status of their homes. Perhaps the most remarkable story I have heard is from a man who has been monitoring his house remotely during the flooding with web-based security cameras. He was talking to others at the gate, using his cell phone to share real-time video from his living room. One of his cameras was plugged into his internet router’s battery backup — so he was even able to watch his home while the power was out.
Natural disasters stress every part of human society. We never perform as well as we can — as well as we should — in the face of disaster; there are always failures today and lessons to be learned for tomorrow. This is as true with Hurricane Harvey as it was with superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, and every other disaster we experience.
At the same time, these events bring what works — and the best of what society has to offer — into relief. Over the past week we have seen countless examples of selfless humanity, of people coming together to support one another, of our ability to overcome sudden scarcity. By and large, we have seen these stories — and many of them have been made possible — because of the performance of the tech and communications sector: from the regulators at the FCC to the decision makers in industry, to the crews, engineers, and technicians on the ground in Houston. And as so often is the case, we have seen the most scarce and precious resource — individual people, in their ingenuity, selflessness, and community — using communications infrastructure in new, unexpected, valuable, and often lifesaving ways.