Tracking Irma

So I am sure you were faced with news updates all weekend regarding Hurricane Irma. Most people have some familiarization with the state as they have vacationed there or have family there during some part of the year, and Irma was touted as an extreme storm (as seen by its devastating impact on islands in the Caribbean) that demanded attention. We have family who live on a man made peninsula in South Pasadena, just across the bridge from St. Pete Beach on the Gulf side of the state (https://www.bing.com/maps?cp=27.748087~-82.746719&lvl=16), and they were sheltering in place, so we watched with great concern in the days leading up to the storm coming ashore in Florida. Once it became clear it was coming straight at our family, our concern and anxiety grew. What also grew was the frustration with trying to get information on what was actually happening as the storm progressed. We navigated between many different sources of information (images above), such as:

  • CNN and their fearless, if not a little crazy, reporters standing in wind driven rain and flood waters. Lots of information being delivered, but nothing really helpful when it comes to what was happening or was going to happen as the storm reached Tampa Bay. Mostly reporters in really bad weather trying to give people a sense of what it would be like to be out there.
  • The New York Times iPhone and desktop apps. Good information that was up to date, but again, very broad in scope and at times raising more concern than needed, such as on Saturday morning when the storm path was going directly over South Pasadena. The path they displayed was one of many that would be generated every 90 minutes as the storm progressed, but if you did not realize that, real panic could set in.
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) web site. Wonderful maps which were very helpful for the several days before the storm was close to Florida, but by Saturday morning, not that helpful, as the scale of the data provided did not match the level of detail we were looking for.
  • Local government maps (Pinellas County mostly and State of Florida). Lots of information, but maps were often difficult to use and were designed for coordinating evacuations and locations of services. All good stuff, but did not really help as we tried to track conditions.
  • The Weather Channel iPhone App. Gave up to the minute data, but trying to look at the weather down the coast to see what was coming was slow and cumbersome. Their desktop browser app was better and did provide the best information, but lacks reporting of news, such as storm surges, which was critical to where our family was.

Now take the frustration felt by my family and multiply that by all the other people who have loved ones and/or property in Florida (millions) and we can quickly see that the current steams of data coming at people during these events is not meeting the needs of people who need answers so they can make quick decisions.

As you may know, our company is all about maps and data, so this was all quite frustrating, as I could see in my mind’s eye the application that my company could build with the software and data feeds we have now that would provide exactly what I am looking for. Using Visual Command Center we could pull data from HurricaneMapping.com to get the latest weather data automatically updated from NOAA. That information would be shown in context with other weather information coming from the Weather Channel so that we could get a real sense of the current and predicted weather conditions for the west coast of Florida. We could enter the enter the addresses of our family, friends and vacation destinations as locations that would be automatically monitored by Visual Command Center so that an alert is generated once conditions exceed the criteria I would define for alerting, such as a wind speed forecast meeting hurricane conditions, being within a mandatory evacuation zone and a storm surge predicted to exceed 2 feet. Once an alert is generated for a location, we can assess it and make decisions, such as should the people we are trying to help evacuate and if so, where, as city and county shelters would be another available layer that I could activate on the map. To get an even better sense of what was going on as the storm progressed, I could search twitter traffic in the area we are monitoring. Any tweet with a location containing keywords we care about, such as wind, flooding, damage, etc., could quickly be displayed to give a real time report of what is happening, eliminating the need to watch local TV stations and CNN. If evacuation is deemed the best route, then we could create driving directions using up to date traffic and road closure data from Inrix and Bing Maps so that we do not send loved ones in the wrong direction when time really counts. Those directions would be sent through the application to our loved ones using email, but in case of an electrical outage, I would also want it sent as a text message or a number of other delivery methods so that I would be more sure that it was received and could receive a reply.

What I have described is the business of ICI Innovations and our partner IDV Solutions. Building such an application for everyone out there who needs it is not impossible, but as a practical matter, we have started with the companies and governments who have the same concerns about their citizens, employees and physical assets that are located in many locations all across a province, state, country or the globe.

Fortunately our family was spared any harm, but others in Florida and the Caribbean are not so fortunate. As such storms are predicted to occur more frequently with greater intensity, it is critical we improve how we are using the tremendous amount of information that is available so that better decisions and actions are made to reduce undue harm and damage. This applies to many other natural events that can affect wide areas such as flooding, wildfire, earthquakes and other weather extremes. Our company will continue to assist clients one at a time until such coordination becomes the norm. We are working right now in our in-house environment to create the application that does what I described, so the next time this happens I will have a single application to give me all the information needed.