Informed Relief: Andrew Schroeder (MPP '07)

December 6, 2012

Part of what can make a hurricane deadly is the storm surge that follows: high winds that cause the sea level to rise significantly above the average high-tide line. Storm surges caused devastation in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and, most recently, during Hurricane Sandy, when more than 8,000,000 East Coast residents lost power.

When disasters like Katrina or Sandy hit, the need to know is crucial. Technology has changed the way relief organizations operate, making it possible to convey vast amounts of information in a fraction of the time it took before.

Just ask Andrew Schroeder (MPP '07), director of research and analysis for Direct Relief International (DRI), a medical assistance and disaster relief agency that relies on reliable data, fast.

In October, reported that Andrew worked around the clock in anticipation of Hurricane Sandy's destruction, tracking the status of about 300 community centers and non-profit health clinics that serve the poor, the uninsured, and other vulnerable populations. A large part of his job during the crisis, he explained, was to figure out which centers had become unusable and to mobilize supplies and redirect them elsewhere.

And that takes all kinds of data—more of which was accessible during Sandy than during any other previous crisis, including citizen alerts to New York's 311 system, satellite imagery, and power grid locations. This was in large part due to DRI's technology partnership with Palantir, which designs data-analysis software for a host of real-world applications, from law enforcement to intelligence to natural disasters.

"It's the first [disaster response] I've been involved with," Andrew recently told the Atlantic, "where we were able to pull together and get linked up really fast. Now we can take virtually any data, in any format…and use it to constantly improve our understanding of what's happening, the ways that different problems are connected to one another and how complex situations may be changing over time."

Even the best of technologies benefit from a little old-fashioned human back-up, however. Andrew recently told the Ford School about the post-Sandy week he spent in New York and New Jersey working on health facility assessment. "Many of our partners were knocked offline after the storm," he explained, "so there was little way to judge their needs other than walking in the door and talking with them."

DRI's efforts were not in vain. When The Floating Hospital in Long Island City lost its electricity, phones, and internet service—along with a network of mobile vans—DRI was able to get them back online in two days. "That was probably the most gratifying connection," Andrew said. "By Wednesday that week we were able to link them up with emergency fuel rations provided by the Office of Emergency Services and restore primary care services for homeless families across New York."

And that's good information to have.