U.S. Representative Donald M. Payne, Jr. (NJ-10), sent a bipartisan letter to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator W. Craig Fugate urging FEMA to adopt open data standards to enhance social media alerts in a disaster situation.
In a June 4, 2013, Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications, on which Rep. Payne, Jr. serves as Ranking Member, the committee examined the role of social media in an emergency situation and lessons learned from using social media during Hurricane Sandy. Witnesses, including Sgt. Greg Kierce, Jersey City Director of Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, noted certain obstacles undermining the dissemination of vital, life-saving information. Of particular note, the hearing revealed that a significant amount of government data is only available via PDF or another unusable format for emergency personnel.
"Social media has revolutionized the way we respond to disasters," said Rep. Payne, Jr. "After Hurricane Sandy, survivors used social media to reconnect with loved ones; to share information about which gas stations, grocery stores, and pharmacies were open; and to coordinate volunteer efforts. Big data technologies can be used to facilitate more effective, efficient emergency response, but we need to make sure that the information made available is usable. That's why it is critical FEMA provide our emergency responders the tools and life-saving information in a readable format so that they can respond more appropriately and effectively in times of emergency."
"From the devastating tornados this past weekend in Illinois to Superstorm Sandy, we know the game changing power of social media from Twitter and Facebook to mobile applications to Google docs when disaster strikes," said Swalwell. "Social media alerts can lead people to safety before a storm strikes and direct them to important resources like food and shelter after the event. I want to ensure that FEMA follows through on implementing the Executive Order in a timely fashion so their data is open and accessible for those who need it in a catastrophic emergency situation."
An Executive Order issued in May 2013 by the Obama Administration directed government agencies to provide newly generated data in a publicly accessible machine readable and open format like CSV, SCML, and JSON. In turn, emergency managers, first-responders, volunteer organizations will have timely access to life-saving information, and innovators can take advantage of the data to develop new products, like mobile applications, that can assist in an emergency situation. In the letter, Rep. Payne, Jr. urged FEMA to comply with the Executive Order and provide an update on FEMA's progress in collecting and creating data in an open format that is more readily available to first responders.
The letter was signed by Subcommittee Chairwoman Susan Brooks (R-IN) and Reps. Yvette Clarke (D-NY), Eric Swalwell (D-CA), Peter King (R-NY), and Steven Palazzo (R-MS).
Read full letter in PDF format below: