The National Weather Service, FEMA, and other federal agencies have come along way in using the Internet and mobile applications to inform and interact with citizens during natural disasters.

The ability of agencies and other relief organizations to rally during a crisis, however, is frequently hamstrung by technical and organizational challenges that inevitably arise in the midst of the crises. Large volumes of traffic can overwhelm or crash websites. Key personnel may themselves be unable to access networks remotely due to the impact of disasters. And data sources can also get backlogged.

One example of how the private and public sectors are working together to improve the flow of useful information surrounding Hurricane Sandy is an interactive map developed by the Google Crises Response team that mashes up Google’s mapping technology with data supplied from a variety of sources including the National Weather Service.

The latest result is a Hurricane Sandy map that lets the public not only track the storm’s progress, but also see layers of information including:

Google Response Team members also launched a map specific to New York City, featuring evacuation zone information from NYC Open Data, open shelters, weather information and live webcams.

Google Crisis Response is a project of According to information posted on its website, the response team is staffed with engineers, product managers, and partnership professionals who focus on “making critical information more accessible during natural disasters.”

As part of that effort, the Google Crises Response teams also offers a modest collection of case studies and a useful checklist of recommendations to the IT teams supporting agencies and others who are trying to provide timely, web-based information services to the public. Among their recommendations:


  • Ask that in a time of crisis your websites can be quickly converted to only show static content in order to reduce server load, or the work your machines need to do, to handle spikes in website visitors during events.
  • Work with your IT team or vendors to develop a backup plan for website to handle any large increases in traffic.

Social media

  • Set up social tools to rapidly inform the public about new information during a crisis. Build your subscriber base by including your social media property information in your communications (websites, blogs, etc.). Update your social media pages regularly so people get used to relying on you for certain types and quality of information.
  • Arrange for multiple staff members to be trained on these tools and have an organization-level login for the accounts in case the regular account owner is unavailable.

Data Publishing: Publish all critical information on your website using these tools and standards:

  • Web feeds, such as Really Simple Syndication (RSS), make it quick and easy to update your content and to send those updates to interested parties who subscribe.
  • Open standards, like Keyhole Markup Language (KML) or the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP), are better than posting only PDFs on your websites. Although PDFs enable people to take the information offline, they also increase the load on your servers and make it difficult to easily re-share or combine your data with other information to create more useful visualizations. PDFs also do not work well as well on mobile devices, which are highly utilized during crisis events. Failure to use open standards may result in duplication of work, or delays in achieving your goals.
  • Structured files that conform to widely known open standards like Extensible Markup Language (XML), Comma Separated Values (CSV), and JavaScipt Project Notation (JSON) allow other individuals or computer systems to understand your information, and automatically ingest and share it. By publishing the content in a way that can be easily mapped or converted by a 3rd party provider, everyone benefits.
  • Open and sharable licenses, or those considered public domain (copyright-free), permit other groups to quickly consume the data without worrying unnecessarily about licensing issues. Otherwise, people might not re-distribute your content for fear of not having the rights to do so. Mark your licenses clearly on your website and in the files you publish.
  • Time stamps let those consuming the information know how old the data is and when it was last updated so they can decide whether to re-share the data.
  • KML format enables your geographic data, such the location of shelters or the movement of storm paths, to appear on certain geographic Google products like Google Earth and Google Maps, and to be shared across many mapping tools on the web.