Tech Startups Bringing Information, Action to Disaster Recovery

When calamity strikes, emergency responders offer the most vital form of relief to those affected—but technology can also lend a helping hand.

New tools are being created to find out what happened in a disaster and then take action, thanks to innovations startups have developed. That can mean anything from getting quick access to live video from the scene of a catastrophe to making high-tech shelters available to survivors.

In mid-March, a gas-leak explosion in East Harlem claimed eight lives, caused numerous injuries, and destroyed two buildings. As firefighters, police, and emergency medical personnel converged on the site, the public waited for any details about what happened. Some of the earliest footage from the scene was transmitted via a platform made by Livestream.

New York-based Livestream has been developing hardware and software for professionals and the layperson to stream live video from just about anywhere. The ability to report from the scene with just a smartphone creates access to events never seen before, says Clayton Rose, general manager of Livestream for News.

He says television news broadcasters have long relied on cumbersome and expensive equipment to get the word out when on location. Livestream’s technology works with professional-grade and consumer video gear to transmit live to the Web.

The company works with some 150 TV stations across the country to provide streams of live newscasts, Rose says. That lets broadcasters reach any Web-enabled device, he says. “Stations are starting to utilize our technology for quick news gathering when you don’t have access to a satellite truck,” he says. Livestream also has apps that allow video to be streamed from mobile devices by professional and so-called citizen journalists in the field. Rose says some networks are using online coverage to break news footage prior to going on-air with a television broadcast.

The ability to capture what is happening in real-time has been increasing thanks to such technology. During Superstorm Sandy in 2012, Livestream maintained its own live feed from cameras on its rooftop, as well as video from citizen journalists in hard-hit areas.

Other types of technology are being used to help inform people when misfortune strikes. It can be something straightforward, such as the Ping4alerts app, from Nashua, NH-based Ping4, which receives emergency messages from federal and local agencies.

More elaborate software can offer insights for search and recovery efforts. Tomnod, a software platform for crowdsourcing analysis of satellite photos, was tapped to help comb the ocean for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. The software was developed by DigitalGlobe in Longmont, CO, and previously was used to size up the damage caused by last November’s super typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.

Meanwhile, robots from Massachusetts companies Bluefin Robotics and Hydroid have also been drafted to aid in the search for the Malaysia Airlines jet, which vanished on March 8.

This is hardly the first time robots have been used to gather information at sea during times of trouble. Recently, Liquid Robotics from Sunnyvale, CA, put its oceangoing devices to work gathering data during Superstorm Sandy. The company’s “wave glider” picked up near-real-time info on wind speed, water temps, and barometric pressure—data to help predict storm intensity.

Gathering information is one way the tech community can help in catastrophes. Startups are also finding ways to help others take action. The team at PowerClip in New York came up with a device to share energy from car batteries when electricity from the grid is not available. Various gadgets can plug into the PowerClip and charge up from car batteries. The original idea was to create a low-cost means to access power. PowerClip found use after Superstorm Sandy knocked out electricity in parts of the Northeast.

Creating lighting systems after a disaster could come from MPOWERD’s inflatable Luci solar lamps. New York-based manufacturer MPOWERD has its roots in bringing illumination to remote places that do not have access to electricity. The Luci lantern is an alternative to kerosene lamps and was distributed in Haiti after an earthquake in 2010 devastated parts of the country.

Getting power and lights back is a start, but many survivors of disasters need roofs over their heads. Reaction, an Austin, TX-based startup, is working on ways to shelter people in need. The company is developing “Exo” housing units that are easy to transport, with each offering living and sleeping space for four. “The upside-down coffee cup design, allows you to stack and ship a lot of units fast to a location,” says John Frankel, founding partner with ff Venture Capital in New York.

Frankel is a director with Reaction and says disaster shelters have not changed much in 60 years. “The [usual] idea is that FEMA rolls out some kind of temporary housing, a tent or something,” he says. Current technology and designs can lead to more functionality for short-term dwellings. “What we saw with Reaction was an [opportunity] to transform the experience for people in awful situations,” Frankel says.

He says each Exo unit has sensors that can tell the internal temperature of a unit and whether it is occupied. “All of that information can be shared back to a control dashboard,” Frankel says. “You know when someone has gone in.”

This 21st century update to portable shelters, he says, can improve the living conditions people face after a disaster. “It’s much more humane and a much less subsistence-type” existence, he says.

Reaction’s Exo units may also have broader uses, Frankel says. He says there is a steady demand for reusable housing for events, such as festivals. He also sees potential uses for the military, which needs portable, sturdy housing suitable for various climes. “That provides a steady base of sales that then allows you to absorb the spikes [in demand] you have around disasters,” Frankel says.

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