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The Future of Disaster Relief: Food, Water, Shelter…and Wi-Fi Blimps?

Tuesday, November 13, 2012 - 11:05 AM

Using technology to get communities back on their feet faster after a crisis might include floating blimps with wi-fi over a disaster-hit city or creating a National Guard of tech geeks to take action when the digital infrastructure goes down or maybe even stockpiling electronics and generators for tech reserves, similar to oil reserves.

These are some of the ideas that the Chairman of New York Tech Meetup, Andrew Rasiej, and I discuss on this week’s New Tech City on WNYC. Rasiej wonders if the recovery from Sandy is happening as efficiently as it could.

In the days after the storm, NY Tech Meetup (with the help of some of its 28,000 members) launched NY Tech Reponds – a website where over a thousand techies have volunteered to help businesses and non-profits with their tech problems caused by Hurricane Sandy.

But much more could be accomplished. “The city still thinks of technology for the most part as a slice of the pie,” he told me. “And what we need the city to understand is that technology is actually the pan that supports everything else that the city does.”

Rasiej and I met up in Dumbo, one Brooklyn neighborhood that was flooded during the storm and is populated by a lot of tech startups. After 9/11, he told me, NYC’s tech community also volunteered to work with small businesses, school, and non-profits to get them back up and running.

Inspired by that, a bill called NET Guard was passed to create a national tech corp that would spring into action after a crisis to rebuild communication networks, databases, and digital infrastructure. Even though the bill passed the Senate 97-0 and was incorporated into the Homeland Security Act, Rasiej said neither the Bush or the Obama administration did much about it.

Rasiej now hopes Deputy Secretary Jane Holl Lute of Health and Human Services (which oversees FEMA) will do more.

“She has already called for volunteers for helping with cyber security and she has told us that she’s very interested in operationalizing the idea of tech volunteers, just like a national guard to be present, whenever there’s disaster coming,” Rasiej said.

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