Hurricane Sandy’s Crucial Technology Chain

Hurricane Sandy, with its wide swath of destruction and long duration, served as a case study of how important technology, particularly communications technology, has become during a crisis situation.  Most of us in Sandy’s path spent at least some time glued to our big and small screens over the past few days, but it’s interesting to take a step back and look at the very complex chain of technology that made surviving the storm easier. 

The following are just some of the crucial links in the technology chain surrounding the big storm.
  • Weather Satellites:  Most of the intelligence and analysis that gave us all uncannily accurate and advance warning of the hybrid conditions that would foster this superstorm came from satellites that fly pole-to-pole, taking snapshots and measurements of the entire earth’s conditions and producing data that make weather prediction a far more exact science than in decades past.    These satellites, however, are aging and bad planning by the Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmosphere Agency threatens to soon leave the U.S. with a potential three-year gap before replacement satellite capability can resume the data gathering capabilities.  Launching one of these birds takes a lot of advanced work and money (“it’s not simply like replacing a burned-out light bulb,” American Meteorological Society President-Elect J. Marshall Shepard said) and so far no good solution to the impending weather satellite intelligence drought has emerged. 
  • A Smarter Energy Grid:  The most fundamental technology that maintains acceptable quality of life during and after a weather emergency is electric power.  Although millions of homes are still without power in the Northeast, the situation could have been a lot worse, particularly in the DC and mid-Atlantic regions served by Pepco, which left hundreds of thousands of homes sweltering in triple-digit misery after the big derecho storm in July.  This go-around Pepco fared far better in maintaining and restoring power, with comparatively few homes in its service territory suffering lengthy outages.  Part of Pepco’s turn-around is no doubt a result of political heat placed on the utility by powerful people, including Democratic Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, one of the party’s rising stars.  But part of the utility’s improved performance might be traced back to its ramped-up deployment of smart grid technology, two key benefits of which are improved resiliency and reduced power restoration time.  “Smarter” grid improvements by hard-hit New York area utilities and pre-emptive shut downs by ConEd may also be making the electricity down times shorter even though that region is still suffering widespread outages.
  • Smart Phones:  Not only were smart phones the top choice for connecting to the Internet during power outages, but they also served as Internet hot spots for some users.  And crucial services, including utilities and emergency responders, devised mobile apps for communications or urged affected citizens to stay in touch via handheld devices.    Flooding and power outages disrupted mobile  and other forms of communications throughout the storm-hit areas, but thousands of tweets and Facebook posts attest to the popularity of smart phones as a critical means of staying connected during the deluge.
  • Twitter:  Without a doubt, Twitter was a prime, if not the prime, news source for timely information during Sandy, serving as a real-time newswire that proved more informative than most newspapers and news channels.  In fact, the most useful information on most traditional newspaper websites came from curated tweets, with the “real” news articles often dated and inaccurate by the time they were posted.  Government officials and politicians (including heavily damaged Newark’s mayor Cory Booker) used Twitter as a primary mode of communications throughout the crisis.
  • Big Data:  Big data played a very useful role during the storm, helping to map everything from transportation problems to school closing to power outages.  The granddaddy of big data analytics, Google, created a SuperStorm Sandy mapping tool that detailed everything from power outages to emergency shelter locations to evacuation routes to live webcams.
  • Emergency Response Communications:  Although it’s too soon to say how well the first-responder community fared across the multiple states where Sandy hit, the storm does serve as an object lesson regarding why the upcoming First Responder Network, authorized under the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, is needed .  FirstNet will be a nationwide interoperable broadband communications network that allow emergency responders, including police, firefighters and emergency medical personnel, to have access to a common network dedicated to public safety purposes.
Update:  Right after posting this piece, I read Josh Smith's piece about how both TV broadcasters and wireless carriers are making their arguments for more spectrum on the basis of the vital information roles they played during Sandy.  I realize, dumbfounded, I left out television and radio out altogether in the crucial technology chain.  I suppose that most people do indeed watch broadcast stations during storms these days, but as Mathew Ingram noted, much of the TV reports "amounted to reading reports from Twitter, and interviewing their own news reporters standing hip-deep in the water in places like Atlantic City or Battery Park."  Radio is, of course, different and important.  But the fact that I genuinely "forgot" about TV and radio speaks volumes, whether it's about my skills as a media analyst or about the fading away of traditional broadcasting as an important communications tool in the U.S., I'm not sure.


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