Author Archives: Bridgette Austin

Harnessing the Power of Data for Disaster Relief

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Data is the engine driving today’s digital world. From major companies to government agencies to nonprofits, business leaders are hunting for talent that can help them collect, sort, and analyze vast amounts of data — including geodata — to tackle the world’s biggest challenges.

In the case of emergency management, disaster preparedness, response, and recovery, this means using data to expertly identify, manage, and mitigate the risks of destructive hurricanes, intense droughts, raging wildfires, and other severe weather and climate events. And the pressure to make smarter data-driven investments in disaster response planning and education isn’t going away anytime soon — since 1980, the U.S. has suffered 246 weather and climate disasters that topped over $1 billion in losses according to the National Centers for Environmental Information.

Employing creative approaches for tackling these pressing issues is a big reason why New Light Technologies (NLT), a leading company in the geospatial data science space, joined forces with General Assembly’s (GA) Data Science Immersive (DSI) course, a hands-on intensive program that fosters job-ready data scientists. Global Lead Data Science Instructor at GA, Matt Brems, and Chief Scientist and Senior Consultant at NLT, Ran Goldblatt, recognized a unique opportunity to test drive collaboration between DSI students and NLT’s consulting work for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the World Bank.

The goal for DSI students: build data solutions that address real-world emergency preparedness and disaster response problems using leading data science tools and programming languages that drive visual, statistical, and data analyses. The partnership has so far produced three successful cohorts with nearly 60 groups of students across campuses in Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Chicago, Denver, New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., who learn and work together through GA’s Connected Classroom experience.

Taking on Big Problems With Smart Data

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DSI students present at NLT’s Washington, D.C. office.

“GA is a pioneering institution for data science, so many of its goals coincide with ours. It’s what also made this partnership a unique fit. When real-world problems are brought to an educational setting with students who are energized and eager to solve concrete problems, smart ideas emerge,” says Goldblatt.

Over the past decade, NLT has supported the ongoing operation, management, and modernization of information systems infrastructure for FEMA, providing the agency with support for disaster response planning and decision-making. The World Bank, another NLT client, faces similar obstacles in its efforts to provide funding for emergency prevention and preparedness.

These large-scale issues served as the basis for the problem statements NLT presented to DSI students, who were challenged to use their newfound skills — from developing data algorithms and analytical workflows to employing visualization and reporting tools — to deliver meaningful, real-time insights that FEMA, the World Bank, and similar organizations could deploy to help communities impacted by disasters. Working in groups, students dived into problems that focused on a wide range of scenarios, including:

  • Using tools such as Google Street View to retrieve pre-disaster photos of structures, allowing emergency responders to easily compare pre- and post-disaster aerial views of damaged properties.
  • Optimizing evacuation routes for search and rescue missions using real-time traffic information.
  • Creating damage estimates by pulling property values from real estate websites like Zillow.
  • Extracting drone data to estimate the quality of building rooftops in Saint Lucia.

“It’s clear these students are really dedicated and eager to leverage what they learned to create solutions that can help people. With DSI, they don’t just walk away with an academic paper or fancy presentation. They’re able to demonstrate they’ve developed an application that, with additional development, could possibly become operational,” says Goldblatt.

Students who participated in the engagements received the opportunity to present their work — using their knowledge in artificial intelligence and machine learning to solve important, tangible problems — to an audience that included high-ranking officials from FEMA, the World Bank, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The students’ projects, which are open source, are also publicly available to organizations looking to adapt, scale, and implement these applications for geospatial and disaster response operations.

“In the span of nine weeks, our students grew from learning basic Python to being able to address specific problems in the realm of emergency preparedness and disaster response,” says Brems. “Their ability to apply what they learned so quickly speaks to how well-qualified GA students and graduates are.”

Here’s a closer look at some of those projects, the lessons learned, and students’ reflections on how GA’s collaboration with NLT impacted their DSI experience.

Leveraging Social Media to Map Disasters

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The NLT engagements feature student work that uses social media to identify “hot spots” for disaster relief.

During disasters, one of the biggest challenges for disaster relief organizations is not only mapping and alerting users about the severity of disasters but also pinpointing hot spots where people require assistance. While responders employ satellite and aerial imagery, ground surveys, and other hazard data to assess and identify affected areas, communities on the ground often turn to social media platforms to broadcast distress calls and share status updates.

Cameron Bronstein, a former botany and ecology major from New York, worked with group members to build a model that analyzes and classifies social media posts to determine where people need assistance during and after natural disasters. The group collected tweets related to Hurricane Harvey of 2017 and Hurricane Michael of 2018, which inflicted billions of dollars of damage in the Caribbean and Southern U.S., as test cases for their proof-of-concept model.

“Since our group lacked premium access to social media APIs, we sourced previously collected and labeled text-based data,” says Bronstein. “This involved analyzing and classifying several years of text language — including data sets that contained tweets, and transcribed phone calls and voice messages from disaster relief organizations.”

Contemplating on what he enjoyed most while working on the NLT engagement, Bronstein states, “Though this project was ambitious and open to interpretation, overall, it was a good experience and introduction to the type of consulting work I could end up doing in the future.”

Quantifying the Economic Impact of Natural Disasters

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Students use interactive data visualization tools to compile and display their findings.

Prior to enrolling in General Assembly’s DSI course in Washington D.C., Ashley White learned early in her career as a management consultant how to use data to analyze and assess difficult client problems. “What was central to all of my experiences was utilizing the power of data to make informed strategic decisions,” states White.

It was White’s interest in using data for social impact that led her to enroll in DSI where she could be exposed to real-world applications of data science principles and best practices. Her DSI group’s task: developing a model for quantifying the economic impact of natural disasters on the labor market. The group selected Houston, Texas as its test case for defining and identifying reliable data sources to measure the economic impact of natural disasters such as Hurricane Harvey.

As they tackled their problem statement, the group focused on NLT’s intended goal, while effectively breaking their workflow into smaller, more manageable pieces. “As we worked through the data, we discovered it was hard to identify meaningful long-term trends. As scholarly research shows, most cities are pretty resilient post-disaster, and the labor market bounces back quickly as the city recovers,” says White.

The team compiled their results using the analytics and data visualization tool Tableau, incorporating compelling visuals and story taglines into a streamlined, dynamic interface. For version control, White and her group used GitHub to manage and store their findings, and share recommendations on how NLT could use the group’s methodology to scale their analysis for other geographic locations. In addition to the group’s key findings on employment fluctuations post-disaster, the team concluded that while natural disasters are growing in severity, aggregate trends around unemployment and similar data are becoming less predictable.

Cultivating Data Science Talent in Future Engagements

Due to the success of the partnership’s three engagements, GA and NLT have taken steps to formalize future iterations of their collaboration with each new DSI cohort. Additionally, mutually beneficial partnerships with leading organizations such as NLT present a unique opportunity to uncover innovative approaches for managing and understanding the numerous ways data science can support technological systems and platforms. It’s also granted aspiring data scientists real-world experience and visibility with key decision-makers who are at the forefront of emergency and disaster management.

“This is only the beginning of a more comprehensive collaboration with General Assembly,” states Goldblatt. “By leveraging GA’s innovative data science curriculum and developing training programs for capacity building that can be adopted by NLT clients, we hope to provide students with essential skills that prepare them for the emerging, yet competitive, geospatial data job market. Moreover, students get the opportunity to better understand how theory, data, and algorithms translate to actual tools, as well as create solutions that can potentially save lives.”

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New Light Technologies, Inc. (NLT) provides comprehensive information technology solutions for clients in government, commercial, and non-profit sectors. NLT specializes in DevOps enterprise-scale systems integration, development, management, and staffing and offers a unique range of capabilities from Infrastructure Modernization and Cloud Computing to Big Data Analytics, Geospatial Information Systems, and the Development of Software and Web-based Visualization Platforms.

In today’s rapidly evolving technological world, successfully developing and deploying digital geospatial software technologies and integrating disparate data across large complex enterprises with diverse user requirements is a challenge. Our innovative solutions for real-time integrated analytics lead the way in developing highly scalable virtualized geospatial microservices solutions. Visit our website to find out more and contact us at https://NewLightTechnologies.com.