Hurricane season runs from June 1 to November 1. As early as I can remember, my mom and I picked up a hurricane tracking guide from the local grocery store and watched the storms as they entered the Gulf of Mexico. We converted part of the laundry room or pantry to non-perishable food, bleach, and water storage. My dad and I would often gear up in rain boots and jackets to rake leaves off of our block’s storm drains.
I was born in New Orleans, and I remember evacuating for Hurricane Andrew to Jackson, Mississippi. For us, it was mostly uneventful, or maybe I was too young to realize. We eventually moved to Houston.
My dad and I were visiting New Orleans when Tropical Storm Allison hit the first time. We were on the last flight to land in Houston that night. When TS Allison swung back around, my dad spent the night pacing–while suffering from kidney stones–watching desperately as our house almost flooded. We later learned that our neighborhood would become part of a voluntary evacuation zone.
We evacuated my nanny, a long time Nola resident, to Houston when Hurricane Katrina struck, only to load up the cars and evacuate from Hurricane Rita ourselves, making it only 45 minutes away from our house after 14+ hours in the car. Running out of gas, my dad made a call to a co-worker who already had a number of people at her home. We joined them, slept under a pool table, and drove home the next day to minimal damage because the storm had moved east of us. My parents installed storm shutters and vowed to never evacuate again.
I was in college in San Antonio during Hurricane Ike. My parent’s home lost power for 13 days, and my dad did what he could to grill food for the block. They had tons of steak and egg tacos, pulling everything out of their freezers and getting it cooked before it rotted. The roof failed, and water ran down the walls to the first floor. However, rainwater is always better than flood water, so we were thankful. Eventually, my parents moved to Central Texas.
All of these times we had been very lucky. We were never in immediate danger, and we always had some amount of food and water. The house could always be fixed.
Then Hurricane Harvey hit, and I watched in horror as my social media filled with my friends desperate for help, some on their roofs pleading for a helicopter rescue. Others asked where their help was needed most, willing to drive their boats and launch them anywhere. Still others gave hourly updates about how much water was lapping into their houses and apartments. The most I could do was send money to organizations that I thought might be able to help the most and the fastest. I could retweet and repost shelter locations, numbers to call, or where volunteers were needed. But that never felt like enough.
Fast forward to now. IBM kicked off the Call for Code initiative, and I’m so excited and proud to be a part of it. I’m an owner of a tech area around translation and communication, which I think has the potential to make a huge impact not to mention save tons of lives, maybe even as early as this hurricane season.
Let me share some thoughts on how I think each of the current code patterns could be used in this challenge with the real-time translation and communication.
Create a mobile handwritten Hangul translation app
At first, I’m sure people are thinking “ok this only makes sense for Korean,” but I challenge you to think outside of the box. Areas like the Gulf Coast are home to a literal melting pot of people who speak many different languages. Some might read their native language better than English. Getting information to all individuals during a disaster is crucial and clearly communicating it in their native language might save more lives simply through better understanding.
Let’s go even more out of the box. During the search, rescue, and recovery process we often see first responders tag homes and buildings with codes to show if the house was searched, if anyone was found, and so on. These “X-codes” were most notable after Hurricane Katrina. Because most of these codes were in a standard format, we could build an app that parsed the codes into a database without having to send surveyors out again. While an effort has switched to using stickers, this is still a method used today.
Analyze Twitter handles and hashtags for sentiment and content
Have you ever watched a news handle or a particular hashtag during a disaster? It fills with pleas for help, overall confusing, and of course “thoughts and prayers” sent by well-wishers who are nowhere near ground zero. It would be great to filter out Tweets with irrelevant or no information during a crisis. That isn’t to say that those other tweets aren’t meaningful in the long run, it’s just not something someone wants to see when they are desperately trying to find water, food, or shelter.
Deploy a serverless multilingual conference room
This one seems like we can pretty much stay inside the box. First responders, journalists, and city leaders/officials all need to work together to get information out to everyone from a command center. Again, not everyone in one area may speak the same language. Clear up the miscommunication by using their native language.
Create an app to perform intelligent searches on data
Government websites are notorious for having tons of information presented in one huge scrolling page. I don’t blame them, they have a lot of information to get out. In a disaster, you need the fastest way to access the most relevant information. You might not know what to type or remember what office you need to apply to for aid and how, but an intelligent search can help elevate particular pieces of information, making it as digestible as possible.
Will you answer the call?