In this era of data privacy, are we sometimes missing the point? We look into the positive aspects of data collection and tracking and how, one day, it might just save your life

Direct Relief Typhoon
Direct Relief provides medical support to disaster zones. Image: Direct Relief

Data mapping

So here’s the thing. We report regularly on data misappropriations as we learn of them. There is an – absolutely merited – call for organizations to be held accountable when they manipulate consumer data.

However, there are also many, many quieter organizations that really need your data. They aren’t going to sell it. Nor do they want to market anything to you. They want to know that, if a disaster strikes, they will be able to save your life.

It really struck me when I looked last week into Facebook Disaster Maps how valuable our data can be. Not just for marketing purposes, but for our own safety.

And once I started reading, my eyes were opened. Emergency services need us to have tracking turned on to find us. Getting help in a large scale crisis is dependant on relief workers knowing where we are. And yet, I am one of the millions of people who have (or rather, had) tracking disabled on my mobile.

Did you know that more people globally own a mobile phone than a toothbrush? That puts it into a greater perspective for me than any statistic. Mobile phones are our worldwide connector, and they are being put to extraordinary uses.

Disaster mapping

Getting help to millions of people simultaneously is an awe-inspiring feat. Direct Relief is one such organisation. They are on the frontline providing support for people and communities impacted by the terrifying wildfires in Australia.

One data mapping tool used in these efforts is Facebook Disaster Maps. Think hurricanes, earthquakes, mudslides – anything of this scale needs real-time data to be able to help as many people as possible.

Facebook tracks population movement by plotting the location of people who have the app on their mobile. Users must have tracking enabled. In Australia, 60% of people use the app. Within 24-hours of a disaster emerging, Facebook makes this data available. This is part of their Data for Good initiative.

Facebook Disaster maps
Facebook Disaster Maps help track population movements. Image: Direct Relief

Fighting fires

Earlier this week I spoke to Tony Morain, VP Communications at non-profit Direct Relief. They provide large scale support, resources, and medical supplies during crises. Direct Relief worked with Quantus Airlines to deliver half a million respiratory masks to people in Australia.

Morain explains that population mapping is invaluable. They can see where people are moving, and forewarn local authorities to expect them and make provision. Support agencies can direct their resources to the locations where evacuees are heading.

He says that knowing how people respond to evacuation orders, and who has stayed behind, is crucial to saving lives. Often those who do not evacuate simply don’t have the resources to do so. They might have medical equipment they cannot carry, they might have nowhere to go, or not have any access to a vehicle.

Data mapping also qualifies the educated guesses that were previously the rule of thumb. Being able to demonstrate how people evacuate, who stays behind, and why, means that support reaches people faster. This is all a learning curve, and being more educated about how people act means being able to better respond to every future disaster.

Personal security

The potential problem here is our general suspicion about ‘being tracked’. However, tracking information uses data grids to collate population movements. It is completely anonymous and does not relate to any specific individual.

There are robust data-sharing agreements in place that control how information is shared, and with whom.

Australia Wildfires
Over 100,000 people have been evacuated amidst the Australian wildfires. Image: Flickr

The value of data

There are more instances where your data is valuable than you might realise. The Ontario Human Rights Commission explains why they need data, and the power it has for good.

They use data to facilitate equal opportunities in areas such as employment, education and human rights. It helps to measure progress – or lack of it – and where there are shortfalls. Without such data, they would not have the resources to support people who need it, or to hold accountable those organizations who are not meeting their obligations.

Datasets are made available by a number of organizations. The objective is to help avoid fatalities, contain illnesses and provide support in disasters. In the US these include:

  • Government data
  • Federal Emergency Management Agency
  • Google Crisis Maps
  • National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases
  • U.S. Department of Defense
  • U.S. Department of Homeland Security
  • United Nations: Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee

I think I can speak for us all when I say that, if by a terrible stroke of luck I contract a life-threatening disease, I want my healthcare organization to know everything they can about how to fight it.

Hurricane Katrina
Hurricane Katrina killed 1,836 people in 2005. Image: Flickr

Technology for good

Morain explains that having access to powerful datasets and tracking information is about more than amplifying emergency responses.

Live data can track a hurricane off of the Gulf Coast with four hourly updates. This means that evacuation orders can be issued in advance of a disaster hitting – since getting people out of harm’s way is the number one objective.

They are able to overlay tracking maps showing air quality, particulate mass being produced by wildfires and where people are evacuating to. This means sending respiratory aids to exactly the right location before people struggle to breathe.

All in all, knowing where we are is essential in a crisis. As technology develops, there are plans to expand upon this. One potential is for Direct Relief to deploy healthcare mobile units that could be sent to those individuals left behind in a disaster who likely need help more than anybody.

The problem? If they don’t have location tracking turned on, help won’t be able to find them.

This has given me a lot of food for thought. What do you think? Would you consider turning on location tracking, knowing that if you find yourself in a crisis it might save your life? Let me know!

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