Russ Clark: Using Technology to Prepare for, Cope with Disasters

Russ Clark

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2016

When Hurricane Matthew hit, I anxiously watched what was happening at my Savannah area home via web cameras -- until the power went out. I then breathlessly watched the tidal station reports at Ft. Pulaski (again, until power went out) to gauge tidal surge. 

Like others in the area, we all prepared for Matthew and then watched as the storm approached. During and after the event we scavenged for any information we could find on how our community had fared, where there was damage, and who needed our help.

But what if Savannah and other hurricane-prone regions had a “Smart City” initiative in place to bring together local government, nonprofits, area businesses, teachers, parents and civic leaders to find technology-based solutions for coping with hurricanes and other natural or manmade disasters? Web-connected sensors and cameras could share information, keeping homeowners and business owners in the know, while having the added benefit of resiliency with traffic light control, parking and transportation, among others. 

Cities and communities across the United States are on the cusp of a new era, one in which residents, their businesses and their environments are connected by smart technologies. Currently, the National Science Foundation is soliciting proposals for a Smart and Connected Communities initiative that reflects the need for a regional approach to improve quality of life and services, provide opportunity for innovation, and address challenges and opportunities.  

Smart community projects (like those being solicited by the NSF) include rich sensor data from the Internet of Things (IoT), a network of physical objects that allow businesses to interact with and gather endless amounts of data. You may recognize IoT by the more commonly-known smartphone apps, Wi-Fi enabled thermostats, fitness wearables or even remote access to your home security system. They can also leverage citizen-provided data, similar to the way news media uses video and reports from viewers, to provide real time information on an area’s status following a catastrophic occurrence. 

The resulting information can then be used to help local government officials, first responders and utilities know exactly which resources are needed and where. It also helps the general public better understand what is going on, how they can help, and when and how they can return. 

However, being designated as a Smart City has implications beyond just hurricane preparedness. It fosters economic development by attracting new businesses and growing existing ones; improves sustainability by reducing energy use; engages citizens, businesses and community groups to create and deliver cutting-edge services; and uses innovation to improve everyone’s quality of life. As George M. Keller, chairman of Standard Oil Company of California in the 1980s, once said, “I’m not sure what solutions we’ll find to deal with all our environmental problems, but I’m sure of this: they will be provided by industry; they will be products of technology. Where else can they come from?”

Russell Clark, a senior research scientist in Georgia Tech’s School of Computer Science, engages hundreds of students each semester in mobile development and emphasizes innovation, entrepreneurship and industry involvement. On November 10, he will be leading a session at Georgia Tech-Savannah on how small- and mid-size business owners can transform their operations with mobility and the Internet of Things. To register or learn more, visit or email [email protected] for details.