Can Tech be the First Responder?

How apps, drones and agile development practices have aided relief efforts in extreme weather conditions.

In recent months, the United States mainland and several US territories have suffered devastating extreme weather conditions. Meanwhile, experts are predicting that we can expect to see more of the same over the coming years. The virtual world of digital technology can seem rather feeble in the face of overwhelming natural forces. But in a software-driven world, tech will inevitably be relevant to rescue and recovery efforts.

Agile Rescue Practices

In September, Fast Company reported that a freelance software engineer named Greg Sadetsky created an interactive map that had helped the Coast Guard rescue Houston residents left stranded among floodwaters in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. This was part of a wider effort by developers who collaborated via online forums and agile development tools to create web and mobile apps that could aid relief efforts.

Working closely with a Coast Guard lieutenant, Sadetsky quickly added new layers and functionality—at some points, putting a new release online once every minute. Today, software-driven companies must be responsive to user feedback and able to continuously roll out new features. It’s fascinating to see this applied in a life or death situation. According to Fast Company, the map was credited with aiding in the rescue of over 1,700 people.

This was not an isolated incident. As Dogtown Media notes, the Zello walkie-talkie app was widely used in the aftermath of Harvey—indeed this is how Sadetsky kept in touch with the Coast Guard. Dogtown also provides the example of GasBuddy, which proved useful for people who were evacuating dangerous areas, by helping them to identify which gas stations were out of gas or had lost electricity.

Overcoming the Limits of Tech

This, however, should serve as reminder about the limits of tech in these situations. The loss of electricity (and other crucial infrastructure) can render digital technology useless. That’s a big problem, given that most people today rely heavily on tech in their day-to-day lives. So, when Puerto Rico had its electrical infrastructure and cell service all-but wiped out by Hurricane Maria, this was not only a huge inconvenience—it was downright dangerous.

To draw the conclusion that tech is therefore more of a hindrance than a help in these situations is shortsighted. The benefits of tech remain—we just need smart solutions for keeping everything online when disaster hits. For an example of this in action, look at the way Google has been using its solar-powered, high-altitude balloon technology to help restore cell service on Puerto Rico.

How to be Responsive

That is not to say we shouldn’t be critical of tech’s role in these situations. There are often upsides and downsides. For example, drone technology has been helpful in disaster relief efforts, but privately-flown drones have also created a hindrance to relief efforts. The important thing is that we need to set up ways to make sure the relevant parties have reliable access to the most helpful technologies available.

Again, it’s worth emphasizing how useful app economy principles like agile development and continuous delivery could be to helping first responders, governmental agencies and local communities meet this goal. Tech companies often talk about “making the world a better place” but it’s not always clear how their businesses do that. Turns out, the core methodology they use to create their products could be a lifesaver.

Sam Macklin
By Sam Macklin | October 20, 2017