Communications Changes Since Katrina

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, lack of shared information hampered disaster recovery efforts, writes Denice Ross, Presidential Innovation Fellow and former New Orleans director of enterprise information, on the White House blog in a Katrina retrospective piece.

“Back then, accessing even basic government data involved a formal public-records request and often came with restrictive data-sharing agreements. As a result, in post-Katrina New Orleans, the public didn’t have easy access to many government data sets tracking recovery activities,” says Ross. “The public could view some government records, one at a time, but because the data were not available in their entirety — in a structured, machine-readable, ‘open’ format — citizens couldn’t download, analyze, or innovate on these data sets. This was a major problem for neighborhood associations, nonprofits, businesses, real-estate developers, and others in need of data to plan their next steps and the collective recovery of New Orleans.”

Open data sources were driven initially by illegal versions of government information being circulated out of necessity, says Ross.

“In fact, people recognized the power of data so much that bootlegged copies of several government datasets eventually made the rounds by e-mail and were widely used by neighborhoods and organizations across the city,” writes Ross. “What kind of data? Things we often take for granted, like building permits, population estimates, and the parcel layer (in other words, information about the shapes of land that people own).

While many things were uncertain after Katrina, the value of data was clear.”

Since then, says Ross, many governmental efforts have been put into place to share open data sets, such as the following:

  • Photos and attributes of properties on the FEMA funded demolition list.
  • An interactive Katrina story map — built from Census Bureau stats and private data sets — from the Smithsonian Institution and Esri.
  • A Blightstatus web app to reduce urban blight through demolition, remediation, or compliance of 13,000 building units in the city.
  • NoticeMe, a personalized notification tool that notifies residents when paperwork has been filed to change a land use designation within their designated communities.
  • The release of disaster preparedness open data, such as the locations of schools, nursing homes, hospitals, grocery and hardware stores, pharmacies, neighborhood boundaries and evacuation pickup points, by the City of New Orleans.
  • A crowdsourcing photo-survey tool for rapid assessment of property conditions.
  • As part of the White House Police Data Initiative, police, city tech staff and coders are building software prototypes on a preview of police data sets in an easily accessible form.

Ross pointed to data such as building permit information as critical to rebuilding efforts.

"Building permits have multiple levels of use cases,” she told and The Times-Picayune in late August.

“Building permit data would have offered a clue to people's plans in those early days. Building permit data was also a rough indicator of rebuilding activity by neighborhood, and would have helped volunteer and case management organizations target their efforts toward blocks on the tipping point of recovery."