This article was republished from Big Data Quarterly.
The World Health Organization (WHO) declared a pandemic for the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in March 2020. Private industry across the world has stepped up to help public agencies on the front lines of the pandemic to fast-track vaccine development and provide tools to inform the public on how best to protect themselves and their communities.
The pandemic is revealing gaps in our critical infrastructure security, supply chain fragility, and utilization of modern technologies to mitigate and recover communities globally. Although advanced technology platforms have been used by large international corporations, the pandemic is exposing the fact that emergency management and public health agencies are behind the curve or underutilizing data science, open source software, and high-performance computing resources.
Government and industry have an opportunity to work together on educating emergency management and public health agencies on these capabilities, providing a unity of effort in identifying, selecting, and deploying the best tools to solve the most pressing challenges of our time—whether it is this pandemic, climate change, or some other major disaster.
Resolving the technology gaps in government and industry— particularly among small businesses—regarding emergency management and public health requires transformation in education and policy as well as agency culture. Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen, who led the U.S. response to Hurricane Katrina, has stated that complex crises cannot be addressed without collaboration with the public and other private organizations. Admiral Allen uses the term “unity of effort” to summarize what is required to overcome whole of society disasters.
To achieve unity of effort, governments can make basic policy changes to advance data science and innovative technologies for emergency management and public health response and preparedness. There is already existing reform and legislation that requires full implementation. The Open Government Data Act, signed by President Trump in 2019, requires U.S. government agencies to maintain and publish a comprehensive data inventory of all data assets. This data inventory, once implemented, will transform government sources of data from documents and siloed databases into open data, using machine-readable formats, for use by any agency or private company.
In emergency preparedness, sky color is an often-referenced metaphorical state of emergency. A Blue Sky is a normal day. Gray Skies imply some type of a disaster is occurring, which then consists of a range going all the way to black skies.
Government open data is critical for Blue Sky preparedness and risk reduction efforts to inform investment in critical infrastructure and industries to make existing fragile supply chains more resilient to global shocks such as pandemics. For Gray and Black Skies, employing the open data in readily available and machine-readable formats, such as comma-separated values, will allow the data to be ingested into databases for research, analysis, and decision support. This will help emergency management and public health officials to make data-driven decisions at the speed of thought, rather than the speed of bureaucracy.
Government has the opportunity to educate the public and emergency management professionals about the availability of data and corresponding data science tools for maximum utility in crises. Open source software communities have existed for decades to help government agencies learn best practices on democratizing data and software to train, reskill, and equip leadership and staff. U.S. National Laboratories and the intelligence community have led the world in high performance computing and employment of graphics processing units (GPUs) and accelerated data science for their missions. Public health and emergency management agencies have yet to employ GPUs, data science platforms, and open source software to their full extent to prepare and respond to crises.
An emergent ecosystem of companies and partners is building and deploying technologies to advance emergency management and public health preparedness and response. Disaster Tech is a public benefit company leveraging GPU-accelerated data science tools that are purpose-built for the emergency management and public health agencies to prepare and respond to disasters. Disaster Tech has partnered with NVIDIA, Microsoft, Kinetica, Indiana University, University of Delaware, and local and state emergency managers to enable the unity of effort between industry, academia, and practitioners that is required for responding to a pandemic such as COVID-19 or future disasters.