How Houston is using open data to handle Hurricane Harvey

Authors: Katya Abazajian and Alex Dodds
Originally published on the Sunlight Foundation blog.

Open data has become a crucial part of emergency response to natural disasters. This week, Hurricane Harvey is demonstrating how robust open data systems can help any city cope with and recover from disaster.

The City of Houston worked with partners at Harris County to make timely information available to the public before, during, and after the storm through a number of open data feeds…

As emergencies developed around the city, Houstonians and residents of surrounding areas relied on open data to track rising water levels, see which evacuation routes were still passable, and find nearby open Red Cross shelters.

In the days since, the City and County have not been alone in their efforts to spread life-saving information. Sketch City, a group of volunteer civic technologists, quickly took action to create a suite of tools to address community needs for rescue, relief, and recovery. In less than four days, they have crowdsourced information and built a map of emergency shelters and shelters’ needs for volunteers and supplies. Their information hub includes rescue maps for emergency dispatchers and a tool that residents of Houston and Harris County can use to text in their zip code and receive the location of the closest emergency shelter in response. The collaborative relationship between the city and these volunteer developers has helped put open data to immediate use, creating useful tools for residents displaced by the flood.

“There’s been a huge outpouring of support and supply donations, but coordinating those donations is an enormous logistical challenge,” Steven David, a performance analyst from the Houston Mayor’s Office of Innovation and Performance, told Sunlight, in an interview. “The situation at shelters is changing rapidly. It took 12 hours before we had all the clothing we could handle. The application Sketch City built is helping coordinate information with shelters in real time. That’s huge.”

Creating this application would not have been possible without robust open data available from the city.


“The city’s open data program has been amazing for us,” Jeff Reichman, founder of Sketch City, told Sunlight, in an interview. “City staff have a lot of buy-in on open data and that makes a huge difference in how well we can use it. We’re able to work very closely with the city to figure out what the needs are and respond accordingly.”

Houston is already starting to look ahead to not just the relief phase but beyond. As the storm now subsides, public agencies are providing open data about where floodwaters are receding, the status of city services, a power outage tracker, what transit routes are resuming service. Harris County is tracking every home that flooded and wants to hear from homeowners to help them recover.

“As we get closer to the recovery phase, that’s when you start talking about getting people back into their apartments, getting their car back on the road,” said David. “People in lowest income communities are going to be hit hardest. Twenty-five percent of Houstonians live under the poverty line, so we have a lot of people who can’t afford to rebuild. So, how are we going to direct all this generosity from around the world and create a network?”

There’s discussion about how to move forward within the tech community, too.

“We’re talking with people who have been through Sandy and Katrina, who are telling us what happened at 24 hours out or two days out,” said Reichman. “We’re already thinking about which tools we’ll be able to redeploy in the future. How can we build out these processes to marshal resources right away so that when we flood again, we’re prepared?”

What can other cities learn from what’s happening in Houston? Open data should be part of any city’s disaster preparedness plan. Residents need as much information as possible during disasters, and open data platforms can deliver it even if city hall is closed. If city websites are overwhelmed, open data can be mirrored for use and reuse, removing roadblocks and choke points to members of the public seeking crucial information.

In this case, technologists and data users in the community have been an important part of Houston’s disaster resilience. They are creating and documenting a network of information and tools that may well form core elements of Houston’s official response to the next natural disaster.

When cities work with their communities to provide actionable information, it can and does save lives, reunite property and target resources where they’re needed.

In the 21st century, cities don’t have to settle for putting out PSAs on the radio or posting signs on lamp posts: officials can leverage the power of the Internet, data, social networks and volunteers lending their expertise to connect residents to services and support, responding not just in real-time but with insight at the right time.

As our nation faces the prospect of more natural disasters driven by climate change, officials and community leaders can learn from one another, applying lessons about disclosure and disaster response to increase the resilience and responsiveness of cities. Part of rebuilding will be thinking through how data and evidence can and should inform development. For now, it’s inspiring to see our friends and neighbors working together to help our fellow Americans in need.

This post has been updated to clarify data sources and map coverage.

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