Why Crowdsourcing Matters in a Disaster

The Office of Naval Research (ONR) sponsored a demonstration last month in the Pacific showing how crowdsourcing could speed response times to critical locations, save lives, and limit damage caused by natural disaster.

(Ford Island was used to simulate damage locations as part of the humanitarian assistance/disaster relief exercise during the 2014 Rim of the Pacific exerices. (U.S. Navy photo/Released)

(Ford Island was used to simulate damage locations as part of the humanitarian assistance/disaster relief exercise during the 2014 Rim of the Pacific exerices. (U.S. Navy photo/Released)

With the U.S. government’s increased focus on the Asia-Pacific region, the Navy will play a bigger role in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief situations, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert has said.

“Our enemy is time in those situations,” Greenert said in a speech earlier this year. “Time can kill and time can save lives.”

During the 2014 Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC), “crowds” consisting of military experts and novices from government and industry identified and marked damaged buildings and roads and other key objects in commercial satellite images when a simulated hurricane struck one of the Hawaiian Islands. As more people tagged the same things in the online images, a heat map emerged showing which areas suffered the most damage.

“One of the biggest challenges during disaster scenarios is getting water, power and other resources to the people who need it most,” said Tom Gallagher, who manages ONR’s TechSolutions program, which sponsored the demonstrated at RIMPAC.

ONR teamed with Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific to use crowdsourcing technology from industry partner DigitalGlobe in the military demonstrations. The system, called Tomnod, has been used in the search for the missing Malaysian airliner, wildfires in California and floods in Colorado, among other recent events.

Volunteer crowds numbering in the hundreds, thousands and even millions have used Tomnod during large disasters.

“You get results fast over huge areas,” said Heidi Buck, head of the Advanced Analysis Systems Branch at Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific. “With a big enough crowd you can do in 20 minutes what it would take hours and hours for a couple analysts to do.”

TechSolutions is designed to bridge the gap between warfighters and scientists by accepting requests directly from sailors and Marines and delivering prototypes to them within 18 months. The idea for the crowdsourcing technology came from an ONR science advisor’s direct interactions with sailors of the U.S. Third Fleet.

As researchers analyze the results from the demonstrations at RIMPAC, they are also working with organizations such as the Pacific Disaster Center that may want to adopt the technology for future operations.

“This is not just a Navy issue,” Gallagher said. “This can help any international organization that aids nations in distress.”

U.S. Pacific Fleet hosts RIMPAC every two years. The theme for this year’s exercise—the 24th—was “Capable, Adaptive, Partners.” The event featured 49 ships, six submarines, more than 200 aircraft and 25,000 personnel from more than 20 nations.

Eric Beidel is a contractor for ONR Corporate Strategic Communications

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