Saturday, January 16, 2010

Diasters need atoms not bits

So I'm sitting at home in front of my big flat screen TV fed from a satellite watching the talking heads on CNN do tricks with Google Earth showing imagery shot from space that depicts the utter devastation in Haiti in near real time, augmented by a Twitter feed. What strikes me, aside from the obvious horror, is how far our capabilities in information gathering and distribution have advanced in the last 50 years, and how comparatively little our capabilities to actually do anything. People still need water and food and their wounds bandaged, all that needs to be transported and the means for transport haven't changed very much. It seems like development has proceeded in a imbalanced fashion. Our information handling abilities have grossly outstripped our matter handling abilities.

This isn't so surprising; it's just plain easier to manipulate bits than it is atoms. But I feel somewhat personally complicit. I've always tended toward the abstract; gravitating towards mathematics and computer science in school, I always felt a kind of awed admiration at the people who were actually working with stuff, like materials scientists who were pulling apart metal bars or the biologists pureeing mouse brains.

Some hackers are getting together today to try to do some kind of rapid software development for Haiti. I'm a little dubious -- no matter how quickly you can throw together a web application, it's unlikely to be quick enough to help, to connect with the real physical relief efforts on the ground. Maybe I'm wrong. Certainly there is mapping software and logistic software that can help with relief efforts, but I assume that this either is already integrated into the operations of relief agencies or it isn't -- you can't deploy stuff like that overnight. Nevertheless, all kudos to the people doing this for trying to help.


Lex said...

I often think of applications when I am waiting for a taxi at Boston Logan airport. The taxis must wait in a pool, and then they are called to the gates as a human monitor sees increased demand.

It seems to me that it would be easy enough to gather together the data from the airline and the airport computer systems to estimate the number of taxis that would be needed at a taxi stands at particular times. After such a system was running for a while, and enough data had been collected, such a system should be able to estimate the number of taxis that would need to be in the pool at particular times.

In a situation such as Haiti, it seems to me that gathering data would be the main issue in order to utilize digital systems. Since Haiti is probably not digitally mapped, information would need to be gathered on the ground and relayed back to the system. Conditions and needs would need to be estimated. This soft data would need to combined with satellite imagery to begin to see the situation on the ground so that strategies could be planned and executed. What data would need to be collected would need to be determined beforehand. Could a small, air-dropped team equipped with satellite phones and mountain bikes gather useful information? Et cetera. I think that you can see where I am going with this.

Large retailers are now beginning to fully embrace technology that enables them to understand their customers and those customer's buying habits. Business is willing to invest in this technology because they understand that it will enable them to operate more efficiently and effectively. It seems that the US military is doing this as well.

FEMA has a long history of screw-ups, so the disaster relief fiasco after Hurricane Katrina should have been no surprise. 'Brownie' was just the tip of the iceberg.

I doubt that there has been any comprehensive and critical study of disaster relief. As with any data analysis of a new area, what is discovered is often far different than what the people involved think they know.

jlredford said...

One of my heroes is Frederick Cuny, a professional disaster relief expert who saved hundreds of thousands of lives with his work from Biafra in 1970 up to Chechnya in 1995. He was trained as a civil engineer, and applied straightforward engineering principles to housing and feeding displaced people. He founded a company, Intertect, which managed relief operations for NGOs. I wrote about him here. He died in a predictable way, executed by some thug in the worst place in the world.

Intertect no longer seems to be around. I wonder if anyone has come up in its place. Cuny's fate is sobering. There seem to be professional mercenaries everywhere, but I've heard less about professional relievers.

TGGP said...

Mike Gibson has a post you might be interested in:

John Robb also writes a lot about the coming "desktop manufacturing revolution".

My last job was about the logistics of lots of atoms, though it was a software company. You acknowledged that sort of thing in your post, so this isn't really new information so much as an example. The companies I'm interviewing with now don't create any value, which means I will assuredly be paid more!