Too much data, not enough sense?

By Ian Roxborough

We are great at collecting data: we now have all sorts of sensors feeding us huge volumes of data. The problem comes in analyzing the data and in making decisions based on that data. We need to focus now on making sense of the data. One of the panels at the 8th annual TIDES tech demo addressed this question. According to John Crowley of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and the World Bank, we have a broken analysis process. We aren’t good at making the best use of the data that we have. This impacts decision-making: we don’t have good triggers that tell us how to act.

Part of the solution lies in more data. We need much more micro-level data so that we can start building risk and impact models that will tell us what is likely to happen at the local level: how many schools will flood, which ones, when? Street mapping and crowdsourcing are ways to make this happen. According to John Crowley, there are already 1.7 million open street mappers at work around the world. We also need to integrate the various different kinds of datasets so that they are all available in one place. Governments need to have not just lists of hospitals, but also GPS locations for each of them. We need a building-by-building picture, and the technology to do this is coming on stream.

In conjunction with improving the quality and relevance of data, we need to work on ways that will enable local responders to prepare for disasters. Part of that is making sure that all the relevant organizations learn how to talk to each other – before disaster strikes. It’s about driving the focus down to the local level where real people have to deal with each other.

Abi Weaver of the American Red Cross talked about how the Global Technology Project was looking 5-10 years forward and field-testing new technologies in sites all around the world. She emphasized that technologies must be customized for local needs. They need to be cheap, robust, needs-based, and – importantly – human centered. The Red Cross is looking at wearable sensors, 3-D printers, UAVs, simple robots, and the kind of low-cost sensors that are already used in smart-home technologies in the developed world. All this has to be put into the hands of the communities themselves, and they have to play a central role in creating the technologies they will use.

Customized technologies, local solutions, building community resilience by creating and strengthening networks – that’s what John Crowley and Abi Weaver are pushing for. Information makes everything else work – but we need the right kind of information to empower sensible decision-making.

About startides

TIDES Research Assistant Intern
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