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Using business intelligence to manage disaster response

As shown by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the federal government must implement better planning for emergency relief.

This article originally appeared on the BeyeNETWORK.

Katrina has become a household name that will forever evoke pictures of ruin and destruction. We all recall those images that came rushing into our homes through the media, often bringing tears to even the most seasoned relief workers. While reconstruction efforts have barely begun, we already have learned lessons on how to prepare for the next major disaster, and in many ways the lessons highlight the importance of business intelligence.

The first line of business in any emergency is to establish priorities and manage resources. In the context of responding to a disaster, this means that we must first gather as much relevant data as possible by asking the obvious questions: What type of disaster is this? When did it happen? (Or when will it happen?) Where did it happen? Who is affected? What help do the victims need? How do we provide the proper assistance? For each of these questions there are answers that emerge from the data gathering and analysis phases. From census and postal data, we can develop working demographic profiles of the impacted area. Understanding the type of disaster (hurricane, tsunami, earthquake, bio-terrorist attack, flood, nuclear explosion, etc.) helps us answer some of the questions related to what the victims need. In addition, it allows us to establish priorities and focus on the allocation of resources, especially for medical purposes.

There are three critical aspects to managing the victims’ needs: Who are they? Where are they? What do they need? Identifying the victims and gathering personal information always raises privacy concerns. Yet there are important reasons to do so. First, in the case of the living, there is the issue of family reunification. Second, it is necessary to make sure there is no one present in a shelter or lodge that may constitute a threat to the rest of the refugees. Lastly, there is a need to identify the deceased to notify their families. Furthermore, there may be a need for screening to determine eligibility for certain types of post-emergency aid.

Knowing the location of the victims is essential to providing help. You must know where they are to rescue them; you must know where to ship food and medicine as it is needed; you must know where they are being sheltered to relocate and reunite them.

Although the American Red Cross developed a database to register and locate victims after Hurricane Katrina, it was often used as an ad hoc response to the emergency. Now, it should be analyzed and improved for future eventualities.

With respect to the victims’ needs, it is interesting that after every disaster there are often distressing announcements about what not to send. We frequently hear things such as, “We don’t need this and we don’t need that, please just send money.” However, money is not the only necessary commodity. It is simply that dollars allow you to convert people’s willingness to help into whatever specific goods or services are really needed by the victims.

We know that after any disaster, whether natural or man-made, there will be a need for food, medicines and shelter. But what type of food is needed? What volumes? What preparation? There is also the pharmaceutical side. What specific medicines are needed? What kind of storage will be required? Who needs to dispense it? This usually depends on the nature of the disaster. What about immediate shelter? It often depends on the latitude, the climate and the environment. Then there is the problem of shelter for the long term.

The newswires are still full of stories about the plight of Katrina’s refugees. At the end of 2005, there were still nearly 150,000 hurricane evacuees living in hotel rooms around the country, and the federal government gave them a deadline to find alternative housing. Since the December 1 deadline was considered unreasonable in Congress and state capitals across the country, it has now been extended. The Red Cross initiated the hotel program after emergency shelters could not handle the number of people fleeing the Gulf Coast. This has cost the U.S government close to $400 million.

Many evacuees desire permanent housing, as well as enough apartment space in certain cities. The ability to convert hotel subsidies into housing assistance is critical. Houston was able to relocate about 400 people a day into apartments from hotels using some government-financed housing with one-year leases. Mapping the housing space for the evacuees is an intellectual task that business intelligence long ago mastered. By linking into some of the nationwide databases, including those tracking the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) inventory, it should be possible to locate available housing more broadly and quickly.

This article argues for better planning before the next emergency occurs by attempting to forecast risk for the different types of disasters, for the different geographic areas and estimating impact. Then, we must plan the campaign to bring relief to the affected area.

Right now, as in most good business intelligence operations, we need a lessons-learned process to begin the next round of planning. The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) was the agency created to do all these things. I will not comment on the reasons for some of their shortcomings during the 2005 hurricane season, since we have all read enough about it in the press. However, let’s remember that FEMA pioneered many of the techniques used to deal with disasters in this country and should be able to do substantially better by taking advantage of state-of-the-art business intelligence tools and techniques.

Dr. Barquin is the President of Barquin International, a consulting firm, since 1994. He specializes in developing information systems strategies, particularly data warehousing, customer relationship management, business intelligence and knowledge management, for public and private sector enterprises. He has consulted for the U.S. Military, many government agencies and international governments and corporations.

Dr. Barquin is a member of the E-Gov (Electronic Government) Advisory Board, and chair of its knowledge management conference series; member of the Digital Government Institute Advisory Board; and has been the Program Chair for E-Government and Knowledge Management programs at the Brookings Institution. He was also the co-founder and first president of The Data Warehousing Institute, and president of the Computer Ethics Institute. His PhD is from MIT. Dr. Barquin can be reached at

Editor's note: More government articles, resources, news and events are available in the BeyeNETWORK's Government Channel. Be sure to visit today!

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