(SUMMER 2014) Lauren Seelbach, G

Lauren Seelbach (G, Technology and Policy Program)

Lauren spent this summer interning at both the American Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Washington, D.C. She was able to contribute to the efforts at the American Red Cross to more effectively use social media in disaster operations by conducting a study to categorize the current uses for social media and suggest achievable policy and process changes to close observed gaps. In addition, Lauren conducted a cross-organization study on the post-disaster damage assessment programs at FEMA and the ARC in hopes of fostering collaboration between the two in the future. She presented this research at a FEMA research group meeting and has been able to initiate connections across the organizations in the groups working to improve damage assessment methods.

Fourth Post, 25 August 2014: Wrapping Up!

Hard to believe that summer is just about over! Time sure does fly. This summer has been filled with wonderful experiences, both academic and cultural. In this post I’ll present the results of my research projects at the American Red Cross (ARC) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and reflect on a few of the things I learned.

Operationalizing Social Media at the ARC

In my last post, I presented the analysis process for this project, which included the development of a coding scheme to translate the qualitative interview responses into quantitative output.  Evaluating each of the interviews against this coding scheme I was able to see which responses were the most commonly reported among the interviewees and make recommendations based on these results.

The highlights of these recommendations are to:

  1. Define and incorporate a process for using social media in decision-making in existing policies or develop new policies for this process, considering that the process should be defined for an operational role, the process should be focused on identifying decisions on which an operational decision can be made, and the opportunity to work with Salesforce/Radian6 should be considered in parallel with process development to further refine the capabilities of this software to address the unique needs of the ARC.
  2. Look at further refining keyword groups in the Radian6 software to pull posts focused on (a) needs and (b) client feedback.
  3. Develop an operational-focused training module for Radian6 and encourage wide participation both at HQ and at the chapter offices.
  4. Incorporate social reporting that’s regionally focused.

Initial feedback from the ARC on the results of my report has been extremely positive, citing that the recommendations are achievable and will be used in future policy and process improvements. I’m very excited to hear this, especially that it will be considered as they work (currently) to draft new policies and procedures.

Damage Assessment at FEMA and the ARC

This joint FEMA-ARC project involved a comparison of the damage assessment processes at both organizations on the basis of the following factors: history and use, data points collected in the damage assessment process, damage classification schemes, current and potential future uses for damage assessment data, information sharing policies and procedures, and future plans for damage assessment.

A few of the key findings include:

  • The data points collected are similar at the two organizations, but certain factors limit efficient sharing. These include: data is recorded differently at each organization, both presently collect data on paper forms (with some use of mobile and geospatial techniques at FEMA), and key data points collected at FEMA are not collected by the ARC
  • Damage classification schemes use different criteria. Both currently follow the damage classification scheme of affected, minor, major, destroyed and inaccessible, however differing levels of damage qualify a home for one of these categories. This makes sharing of damage classification data impossible, unless the underlying cause for making a classification is shared and can be applied to the other organization’s classification scheme.
  • A number of information sharing agreements exist for sharing data from FEMA to the ARC and other similar voluntary organizations. However, no formal information sharing agreements were identified for sharing data from the ARC with outside entities. This would make coordination of data related to post-disaster damage assessments difficult.
  • At both organizations, potential alternate uses for damage assessment data were not something that appeared to have been considered. It is hoped that this research will stimulate thinking about other decisions that might benefit from damage assessment data.

Through this project, I was able to have several interesting and insightful conversations with individuals at both FEMA and the ARC around the topic of how damage assessment factors into the overall disaster response and recovery process. Probably the most interesting realization that I arrived at through these discussions was that while I would have expected that a response operation would have more use for damage assessment figures, it is primarily a function of recovery. It makes sense when you think about the expedited timeline that a response must act on in order to begin getting aid to disaster survivors, but was not something immediately apparent to me upon starting this research project.


As this is my final post, I wanted to take the opportunity to reflect on a few of the things I think went well this summer, and those things that might have been improved. Overall, the experience was extremely positive for me – a wonderful chance to learn first hand from two distinctly different organizations that have active and important roles in disaster response.

What went well? The organization of my internship as a joint FEMA-ARC internship was wonderful. At first I was not sure how it would work out, but setting up my weekly schedule to be consistent with two days at FEMA and three days at the Red Cross made it easy for my colleagues and supervisors to know when to expect me.  In addition, it made it possible for me to initiate connections between FEMA and ARC representatives working on similar projects.  In addition to the joint internship, there were several other highlights of the summer for me: the overwhelmingtly positive ARC response to my interview requests, the opportunity to present my research at FEMA, and the experiences I had that were tangential to my research projects.  Some of these tangential experiences included participating in a response exercise at FEMA as part of the voluntary agencies section with the ARC, demoing new software for potential use in disaster operations at the ARC, and participating in a FEMA working group meeting related to my research topic.

Where was there room for improvement? While I was able to find my joint FEMA-ARC project relatively early on in my internship, I wish that I had identified it prior to beginning work in Washington, DC.  This would have allowed me to delve deeper into the damage assessment question, and potentially conduct a quantitative analysis to support the qualitative analysis that I was able to complete.  In addition, I would have liked to spend more time conducting my case study of the 2013 CO floods for the ARC.  A number of factors in the software I was using limited my assessment, but I feel that more time spent on the case study would have revealed more interesting observations.

Thank you!

To conclude, I’d like to thank my supervisors and coworkers at the ARC and FEMA for their support throughout the summer. I would not have been able to complete my projects without their support and guidance! I’d also like to thank the PSC for giving me the opportunity to have this wonderful summer internship experience!

Third Post, 8 August 2014: Analysis and Learning Opportunities

As the title suggests, in this post I will focus on the analysis process I’ve gone through in my projects with FEMA and the ARC since my previous post, and I’ll talk about a few interesting learning opportunities that have presented themselves since my last post!

Analysis: ARC and Social Media

As of my last post, I was wrapping up interviews at the Red Cross to understand how people were using social media data in a disaster response. So far, that has been my favorite part of the project.  I love talking to people who are both passionate about what they do but also open to new ways of thinking. Once I completed that piece of the project I transcribed these interviews and developed a coding scheme to take the unstructured data of my interviews and create a structure by which I could present quantitative results. I had heard themes throughout my interviews and the coding scheme was meant to capture those themes in a quantitative way and also to help determine what pieces of unstructured data were best to keep in their original form. Ultimately, I decided that it would be powerful to report the specific decisions that people had informed using social media as both structured and unstructured data because the structured, quantitative data would show the broad types of decisions being made, such as the deployment of materials or resources, while the unstructured, qualitative data would provide additional depth for interested individuals. I am only a few interviews from completing this task as of the writing of this post, and with the interviews that I have coded, already have over thirty unique responses to the question of ‘what would you like to see added to the capacity of social media here at the Red Cross’ and fifteen unique answers for ‘how are you currently using social media in a crisis’.  For each, individuals may have multiple answers.  At the conclusion of this analysis, I’ll be able to summarize which of the ‘uses for social media’ and which of the ‘suggested additions to the capacity at the Red Cross’ were the most popular among those interviewed. I’m excited to see what the results are!

In addition to the interview and coding piece of my project, I have also been working on a brief case study to compare the output on social platforms during the 2013 Colorado floods with the reports generated by the social engagement team during that period as well as to consider the use of these reports by field operations teams.  To that end, I interviewed a handful of people from the operations team active in the CO floods and developed a separate coding scheme for their answers to questions that were more specific to the event than others.  The three main components of the case study are to review the social media reports that were generated during that time, understand how they were used (or if they were used) by individuals responding in the field, and look into the feasibility of incorporating additional analysis into these reports.

Analysis: FEMA and ARC Damage Assessment

As I had mentioned previously, I’ll be working on a project about the post-disaster damage assessment processes at both organizations.  The goals of this project are twofold. They are first to characterize the differences between the damage assessment processes at both organizations, and second to work with individuals at both organizations to cultivate interest in this data for decision-making after a disaster.  At FEMA, I am referring to the preliminary damage assessment (PDA) process for Individual Assistance, where individual homes are assessed for provision of assistance.  At the Red Cross I am referring to their Disaster Assessment function. This distinction is made because FEMA also provides Public Assistance (PA) to cities and towns to repair damaged infrastructure such as roads and bridges. The Red Cross does not provide this type of assistance, so the two are only compared on the basis of their assistance to individuals.

At this point, I have partially completed the first goal of this project.  I have completed a comparison of the damage classification schemes at the two organizations.  Damage classification schemes refer to the way that the level of damage to a home is classified.  At present, both organizations classify damage in five categories: Destroyed, Major, Minor, Affected and Inaccessible.  The attributes of a home that are evaluated are relatively similar, but the criteria for classification at the organizations are different. This is an important observation, as there may be benefit to sharing damage assessment information between the organizations, but if the assessments are not compatible in their classification of damage then it makes that sharing less useful.  Also as part of the first goal of the project to characterize the differences have compared the background and use of the damage assessment information at the two organizations. FEMA’s primary use of damage assessment information is to determine whether a disaster declaration is required or not. If a declaration is made, it’s like ‘turning on the faucet’ for monetary federal aid.  For the Red Cross, damage assessment information is used in part to determine the type of aid that an individual is eligible for.  It is important to understand these differences when looking into ways that the ARC and FEMA can work together on this activity, or providing justification for why it does not make sense for them to work together.

I’ve made efforts towards gathering the specific data points that each organization collects in a damage assessment, and will use these data points to accomplish the second goal of this project, which is to cultivate interest in this data for use post-disaster. I’ll be doing this through a series of informal brainstorming sessions with individuals who may be in a position to incorporate this data.  I’ll choose several pieces of information and ask the questions “what could you do with this information if you had it after a disaster” and “are there other types of information that you would find useful.” The goal of this exercise will be to start the conversation about using damage assessment data for more than it is currently being used for, and hopefully generate interest in the topic for further work.

That sums up the work I’ve been doing since my last post – now I’ll share some of the fun learning opportunities that I’ve had!

Learning Opportunities

In the past few weeks, I have had the chance to see things in the emergency management field that I’ve never previously been exposed to. I have:

1)   Visited the National Response Coordination Center in an exercise: I visited FEMA’s NRCC in a recent training exercise and sit in on a daily meeting with the Red Cross liaisons participating in the event. It was excellent to have this opportunity to ask questions and learn more about how the NRCC operates without the pressure associated with a live response.

2)   Visited the National Processing Service Center: I attended a working group meeting held at one of FEMA’s NPSCs. These centers serve many functions, including being call centers that process calls in a disaster that come in to FEMA, as well as providing expertise in the delivery of disaster assistance for survivors and other emergency management agencies.  It was interesting both to see the NPSC but especially to participate in the working group meeting, which was relevant to the project that I am working on.

3) Seen the ‘Designing for Disaster’ Exhibit at the National Building Museum:   The Red Cross is a sponsor of this exhibit, which afforded me free admission (two thumbs up!).  The exhibit walks you through first the natural hazards that threaten the country, including floods, wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes.  Next you are guided through four unique spaces dedicated to teaching hazard mitigation; one each for earthquakes, hurricanes and tornadoes, wildfires, and floods. The spaces show both engineering and practical techniques for mitigating your risk to each hazard. From planting plants with high moisture content at the perimeter of your property to ward of wildfire to the retrofit of UC Berkeley’s sports stadium to resist seismic forces, the exhibit does a wonderful job of presenting the options available to lessen the impact of natural disasters when they do strike. I highly recommend a stop at the National Building Museum to check out this exhibit!! Photography was not allowed in the exhibit, but I snapped a photo of the entrance.

National Building Museum Entrance

National Building Museum Entrance

Exhibit entrance

Exhibit entrance

Second Post, 13 July 2014: Interviews, Disaster Operations, and Research!

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, I’m splitting my time between FEMA and the ARC this summer, with the intent of completing a project that proves to be useful to both organizations.  As this project is research-based, plans change and evolve along the way. In this post I’ll take you through the highlights of those twists and turns in the past month, and share what I have accomplished.

Red Cross

In my first month at the Red Cross I focused on my initial social media project. This project aims to understand how the Red Cross is using social media to make decisions. To answer this question, I’m conducting interviews across the disaster cycle services division, as well as with individuals on the social engagement and public affairs teams.  These interviews will be paired with a case study on the 2013 Colorado floods to see if operational information could have been gleaned through existing tools. Of 58 proposed interview subjects I’ve interviewed almost 40 individuals as part of the project.  The interviews capture information on the individual’s role and responsibilities in ‘blue sky’ and ‘grey sky’ times*, how they’re currently using social media, specific examples of times that they have used social media in decision making, and additional functionality that they’d like to see from social media or suggestions that they have for operationalizing information from social media.  I added additional questions for certain groups with more knowledge of social media, including those involved in the response for the 2013 CO floods and for the information management and situational awareness team.


In action conducting one of many interviews!

In action conducting one of many interviews!

Disasters are chaotic. Responding agencies and organizations are inundated with information in the days and weeks immediately following a disaster, and social media is another data source to consider.  What makes social media unique is that it is nearly instantaneous, so before any services have arrived or any assessment has been done, the social conversation will already be in full swing. The challenge, as I’ve heard thus far in my interviews and have observed in my previous research, is finding actionable information from the global conversation on platforms including Twitter, Facebook and blog sites. The Red Cross currently uses Salesforce’s Radian 6 to manage their social media strategy.  The platform provides the Red Cross with both a means of viewing the 30,000-foot picture of what’s happening on social platforms in the U.S. and across the world and the ability to identify individual posts requiring response.  Having completed my interviews this past week my next task will be to transcribe and code the interviews to understand how the Red Cross is using Radian 6, associated reports, and other tools at their disposal to use social media in a crisis.

*Blue sky refers to times when there are no major disaster response operations whereas grey sky refers to post-crisis times when the organization is focused on response.

This picture shows the Disaster Operation and Coordination Center – what becomes the hub of a Red Cross disaster operation in a crisis.

Inside the Disaster Operations and Coordination Center

Inside the Disaster Operations and Coordination Center


My first month at FEMA involved a lot of reading and background research.  I initially had intended to conduct a similar project to the one that I described above for social media at FEMA, but after a meeting with my supervisor it became clear that it would be more interesting for me to look into a cross-organizational challenge (between the ARC and FEMA). To get started on identifying a challenge and developing a plan to tackle it I read the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, which gives statutory authority to most Federal disaster relief operations, mostly FEMA’s, as well as key sections in 44 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) including Part 206, which spells out the requirements for Federal Disaster Assistance. Next I began reading up on the programs I hoped to research further here at FEMA, including FEMA’s Preliminary Damage Assessment (PDA) process as well as FEMA’s Disaster Survivor Assistance (DSA) program.  Through this and through discussions with individuals at FEMA working in both programs, as well as talking with people at the ARC involved in damage assessment, a better-defined project took shape. I’ve now proposed to look into the damage assessment process at FEMA and the ARC for the balance of the summer, with the aim of discovering ways that the two organizations can improve separately and work together more effectively.

In addition to my project research, I’m learning more about how the organization works. For example, FEMA’s National Response Coordination Center (NRCC) was activated shortly before the Fourth of July holiday in anticipation of Hurricane Arthur.  I was able to take a brief tour of the NRCC early on in the activation – the Hurricane didn’t end up causing significant damage, thankfully, but it was exciting to see this hub of emergency management active in preparation of the Hurricane’s possible landfall.

A visit to the NRCC!

A visit to the NRCC!


Inside the NRCC

Inside the NRCC


In the midst of the work, I did check a few cultural activities off my ‘to-do’ list.  This month, I tried Ethiopian food – something DC is well known for—and enjoyed it very much, toured the monuments by night – walking all the way from the Capitol building to the Lincoln Memorial (!!), and visited the National Portrait Gallery to see the new exhibit titled ‘American Cool’ featuring American icons through the years who have embodied the ‘cool’ persona.

First Post, 12 June 2014: Decision Making in Disaster Response: The Role of Social Media

Social media, including Twitter, Facebook, blog sites, Instagram, and other sites are changing many things about the way we live and work on a day-to-day basis. Something else they’re changing is the way that emergency management organizations think about disaster response.  The discussion in emergency management organizations has evolved from social media sites being viewed as a mechanism for disseminating a message to the fairly recent addition of social media itself as a source of information.

This summer I will be working on a project with the American Red Cross (ARC) and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to identify ways that the two organizations can improve their existing capabilities for using social media for decision making.  This work will take different forms at each organization, but at its base, the project proposes to accomplish this by evaluating the decision-processes associated with gathering, disseminating and responding to or taking action based on social media information. It will involve observation and synthesis of current practices, conducting a case study of a past event or evaluation of specific application of social media, understanding of the needs of the organization, and making recommendations for improvement based on this analysis.

At the American Red Cross I am working with the Information Management and Situational Awareness team in the Disaster Services division.  I have the opportunity to sit at the ARC’s Digital Disaster Operations Center (DigiDOC), a social media command center provided to the ARC by Dell in March of 2012.  This space and the technology in it allows the ARC to continuously monitor social media for information related to hurricanes, tornados, fires, earthquakes, and virtually any topic that is of interest in a crisis response.  The DigiDOC also allows the ARC to inform local chapters, partner organizations and internal staff about the latest updates from social media.  At the ARC, my focus will be on identifying the ways that the information generated with the DigiDOC is used throughout the organization with the goal of suggesting improvements to ensure that information is most effective.  I’ll be doing this through interviews as well as a case study on the 2013 Colorado Floods.

Second day at the DigiDOC!

Second day at the DigiDOC!

At FEMA, I will be working within the Business Management Division of the Recovery Directorate.  I will be looking at the processes in place for the Disaster Survivor Assistance (DSA) program and the processes in place at Disaster Recovery Centers (DRCs).  One focus will be on the use of new technologies (such as social media) in making process improvements to these programs.

In addition to the work I’ve described already, there is the potential that I am able to work with a team of individuals that includes representatives from both the ARC and FEMA who are looking at ways that the two organizations can better collaborate in gathering information and gaining situational awareness (think of this as painting a detailed picture of the emergency situation) for their organizations in an emergency response.  Social media is one information stream that contributes to situational awareness, but there are many other data sources that factor into the bigger picture. I’m excited that my work at the two organizations will give me an opportunity to look deeper into both the detail of the use of social media as well as the broader use of information in aggregate to gain situational awareness.

I look forward to learning, exploring and being challenged this summer. I hope that you’ll follow along to see where this journey takes me!

Leaving my first day at FEMA

Leaving my first day at FEMA



IAP 2014 Blog

Lauren Seelbach (G, Technology and Policy Program)  Lauren interned for the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management (SFDEM) over IAP. She was able to suggest ways that the organization can more effectively use social media data to improve their decision-making processes in a disaster. Her recommendations included partnering with the local start-up organization that she collaborated with to sift through social media data in a disaster, updating procedures to include a dedicated role for social media analysis in an emergency and working with other local organizations already using social media. Based on interviews at the organization and with outside individuals, Lauren tailored most suggestions to build on processes already in place.  If implemented, these suggestions will improve SFDEM’s response in a disaster.

Fourth Post, 2 February 2014: Wrapping up!

As I travel back to Boston to chillier weather and a new semester of classes, I would like to take this post to reflect on my experience with the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management (SF DEM) and Idibon, Inc. in San Francisco.   I’ll describe the results of my project, the highlights of the month and a few of the things I would have improved.


I spent my final week in San Francisco transcribing my interviews and developing my final report.  With the information gathered in the interviews, I was also able to develop an information needs diagram.  This diagram places the information needs of the SF DEM into a structure that will translate well to an application with Idibon’s tools and will also fit with the existing structure established for emergency response at the DEM.

Some of the key recommendations in the report included:

  • Explore a partnership with Idibon, Inc. to apply natural language processing (NLP) techniques to parse through social media data in a disaster.
  • Augment existing partnerships with local organizations to aid in the collection and/or management of social media and other crowd-sourced data.
  • Dedicated individual in the Emergency Operations Center responsible for information gathering via social media. The effectiveness of this individual is improved with analytic tools to parse through large and constantly changing datasets and identify information relevant to the event.
  • Addition of informal two-way communication capabilities to engage more frequently with local citizens. This is beneficial from both a preparedness standpoint to recommend mitigation measures, and in an emergency to provide information.

What worked?

This project was a great opportunity to design a project based on needs identified by an organization and see it through to completion.  It was challenging and exciting to work on, and this month has truly been a unique experience. The following were some of my favorite aspects of this internship:

  • The complete picture of the organization and its role in the communities that I gained through my interviews.
  • Brainstorming and thinking through challenging questions with Idibon to improve recommendations for the SF DEM.
  • The opportunity to attend off-site meetings with my supervisors at SF DEM to learn more about the initiatives they are working on in the department.
  • The unique San Francisco experiences that I was able to fit in outside of my work, including a hike in the Presidio, enjoying Dim Sum on the Chinese New Year, and a visit to the golden fire hydrant.

Where was there room for improvement?

While I am extremely happy with how this internship went, I believe that in reflecting, it’s important to note anything that might have been improved to facilitate even better results in the future.  In this project, the few things that could have been improved included:

  • Scheduling my interviews ahead of arriving in San Francisco would have allowed me to interview a few more people for the project.
  • Conducting a few “dry-run” interviews with friends and family before beginning would have given me a better idea of how to improve questions.

In closing, I would like to thank my supervisors at the SF DEM and the team at Idibon for making this a productive, engaging, and meaningful internship.

Two of my three supervisors at SF DEM, Alicia and Tom. Thank you!

Two of my three supervisors at SF DEM, Alicia and Tom. Thank you!

Third Post, 28 January 2014: Visits with Community Partners

In my last post, for the week of 1/14-1/21, my interviews had mostly been with individuals who work directly for the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management (SF DEM).  In my second week of interviews (1/21-1/27), I met with individuals in local organizations who partner with the SF DEM for a different perspective on emergency response.

These interviews fit well with my third and fourth identified goals to (3) Identify ways in which social media data can be used to enhance existing channels for information gathering and (4) Link the findings of this project to work already being done at SF DEM. Inherent in accomplishing my fourth goal is to ensure that my recommendations fit within the framework that has been built at SF DEM for emergency response.  This framework includes community organizations, so it was important for me to meet with individuals at these organizations.

I interviewed individuals from the San Francisco chapter of the American Red Cross, San Francisco Community Agencies Responding to Disaster (SF CARD), United Policyholders (an organization founded to assist individuals in navigating the insurance claims process after a disaster), and a local private sector partner organization. I also met with individuals at two humanitarian-minded local start-up organizations, Medic Mobile and Recovers.org to learn more about what they are working on and identify whether there might be any overlap between my goals and theirs.

In addition to these interviews, I spoke with a representative from SF Fire Department and had the opportunity to observe the 911 and Police/Fire Dispatch center for San Francisco.  Both of these contributed to my gaining a better understanding of the DEM as an organization and the other city departments that they work with.

Idibon and SF DEM

This past week included an opportunity for me to use Idibon’s tools in a sample project to get an understanding for how they work in practice and the ability that they have to help the SF DEM.  With Idibon’s input, I’ve been able to develop a preliminary proposal for implementation of their tools to meet SF DEMs needs.


Here are a few shots from my time at both SF DEM and at Idibon.

Working at Idibon

Working at Idibon

At SF DEM, with my community preparedness SF 72 bag!

At SF DEM, with my community preparedness SF 72 bag!

Next up is:

  • Continuing to transcribe my interviews
  • Writing up my findings in a report for the SF DEM

Second Post, 26 January 2014: Interviews!

In my second week in San Francisco (1/14-1/21), I focused on the first two goals that I’ve set out to accomplish this month. Here are some details about the progress I’ve made, and what’s coming up in the next post.

Goal 1: Understand what information the SF DEM needs in a disaster.

In order to accomplish this goal, I first needed to specify “what type of disaster are we talking about?”  To me, it seemed obvious that the disaster focus is on “the big one”, but I quickly realized that in an agency that is responsible not only for major event planning but also for daily emergency response, this is not taken as given.  Once I had more clearly defined what my idea of a disaster was for this study, I interviewed fifteen individuals from the department with a set of questions that were aimed at understanding three things:

  1. What information did each individual see as vital immediately after a disaster, a few weeks after a disaster and a few months after a disaster to gain situational awareness?
  2. How is this information currently being gathered?
  3. Is there any category of information that would benefit from the addition of a real-time data stream, like Twitter?

Goal 2: Categorize and prioritize the identified information needs.  Using the identified information needs, what would be top priority? What can wait?

This goal was also addressed by the interview questions, as well as by the existing plans and procedures that SF DEM and many other emergency management agencies already have in place.  However, I approached it from the perspective of a timeline.  Since disaster response and recovery are not only engaged in immediately after an event, some consideration must be made for longer-term recovery.  The interview questions asked each individual to identify those things that could wait until weeks to months after the disaster event.  In this manner, several different opinions were gathered which will feed into the overall categorization that I am working to develop for the SF DEM.

On interviewing:

This was my first experience conducting interviews, and I’ve learned so much.   I borrowed a book from the library before this project began on developing and conducting interviews, which set the building blocks for the work I did here.  This work challenged my interview methodology and in doing so improved it and resulted in better lines of discussion and better results.

Next up is:

  • Brainstorming with Idibon on what it would look like for their tool to be employed to meet the goals of the SF DEM
  • Observing 911 dispatch operations for clues on how they gain situational awareness
  • Writing up my findings and sharing them with the SF DEM for feedback

…and now for the picture.

Last week was full of interviews and information gathering, but I did take a moment to photograph a framed newspaper front page that hangs at the SF DEM’s offices. Similar to the fire hydrant, it reminded me what this research is all about, which is to improve disaster response, even if in a small way. The newspaper was printed the day after the 1906 earthquake, and is burned around the edges, presumably from the fire that devastated much of the city after the 1906 earthquake.

Headlines in April 1906 Newspaper

Headlines in April 1906 Newspaper


First Post, 14 January 2014: Welcome to San Francisco!

Hello!  After a brief setback due to winter storm Hercules and the polar vortex, I successfully arrived in San Francisco last Thursday.  My name is Lauren and I am a first year Masters student in MIT’s Technology and Policy program.  I will be spending the next few weeks in San Francisco, California working on a project I’ve titled ‘Big Data for Decision Making’.  In this post I’ll explain the two components of the project and the project’s goals. I’ll also share photos of the San Francisco landmarks that I’ve been able to see since I’ve arrived!

Project components:

The two components of my project are working with the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management (SF DEM) and working with Idibon, a local startup company specializing in natural language processing. While I am here, I will spend one to two days per week at Idibon, and the remaining days at SF DEM.  The split of time between the two organizations was done intentionally to allow me to understand the needs of the SF DEM and the capabilities of Idibon’s technologies.  This will allow me to suggest ways in which the two can work together beyond this month.

 Project goals:

The goals of this project are to:

(1) Understand what information the SF DEM needs in a disaster situation. This could be anything from a count of displaced individuals to categorization of damage throughout the city to shelter capacity.

(2) Categorize and prioritize the identified information needs.  Using the identified information needs, what would be top priority? What can wait?

(3) Identify ways in which social media data can be used to enhance existing channels for information gathering.  Is there a way to glean this information from social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook?

(4) Link the findings of this project to work already being done at SF DEM. The SF DEM already has projects, such as SF72 (www.sf72.org), that are changing the face of emergency preparedness, response and recovery.  How can this research compliment the work already being done?

San Francisco landmarks!

On my second day of work, we took a short detour after lunch to visit a San Francisco landmark that couldn’t be more appropriate to the project I’ve set out to accomplish.  The landmark is the ‘Golden Fire Hydrant’, and as the memorial plaque reads,

Though the water mains were broken and dry on April 18, 1906 yet from this Greenberg hydrant on the following night there came a stream of water allowing the firemen to save the Mission District.” (Inscription, Golden Fire Hydrant Memorial, San Francisco, CA, 10 January 2014)

 This landmark celebrates a victory in emergency response following the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fire.  Were it not for the successful operation of this fire hydrant, San Francisco’s Mission district would have been destroyed in the fires that had already impacted a significant portion of the city. Each year on the anniversary of the earthquake the fire hydrant is repainted gold in celebration of its role in saving the Mission district from destruction.

Golden Fire Hydrant

Golden Fire Hydrant

Continuing with the ‘golden’ theme, the second landmark is the Golden Gate Bridge, which I had the opportunity to see while on a hike in the Presidio. The Presidio is a park located on the northern edge of San Francisco, near the approach to the Golden Gate Bridge.  It was formerly a military base and has several hiking trails throughout.  The bridge was partially hidden by fog on the day that I saw it, something I’ve learned is a common occurrence here in San Francisco.

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge

Check in again soon for more updates on the project!


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