Hurricane Sandy Highlights Role of Government Information in Our Everyday Lives

As the country continues to recover from the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy, one lesson is already clear: government information plays a vital role in Americans' everyday lives, whether they realize it or not. Information created, collected, and disseminated by government agencies alerted the nation to the storm, tracked its every move, and helped millions of Americans to prepare.

Sandy's tragic impact – more than 113 people dead in the U.S. and perhaps $50 billion in economic losses – is a poignant reminder of the immense and complex power of nature. We have made tremendous strides in predicting natural disasters, such as hurricanes, and informing those in harm's way so they can take shelter. Many of those lifesaving advances have come as a result of government research and technology, and future progress will depend on continued public investments.

However, ensuring that government agencies have adequate resources to successfully execute their missions is only one part of the equation in ensuring that the American people have the information they need. How government operates also matters. Embracing openness and innovation is also an important part of delivering the information that people need to protect themselves and their families.

Weather Forecasts Rely on Government Data

The forecasts that first alerted the public to the threat of a storm rely heavily on government data:

  1. Government satellites and airplanes collect the data on the storm's strength and condition.
  2. Then, government scientists develop and apply the models that predict where the storm will go.
  3. Finally, a government agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) National Weather Service, provides that information to the public.

Some Americans receive those forecasts directly from the government via Others get the news through private intermediaries such as the Weather Channel, local TV and radio stations, or smartphone apps. They may not realize that they are using government information, but regardless of how they get it, the data and predictions all start with government.

Agencies Delivering Better Information, Easier Access

Because of the clear importance of this data to millions of people each year, the government agencies involved have made continual efforts to improve the accuracy of these forecasts. The improvements made in recent decades have likely saved untold lives and considerable economic losses. Predicting the direction of a hurricane is three times more accurate than in the 1970s. Less uncertainty about where a hurricane will go means that costly and disruptive evacuations can be focused on areas that will actually be affected. By more narrowly targeting evacuations, "the improved hurricane forecasts between 2000 and 2006 resulted in savings of $3 billion compared to what the forecasts of the 1990s would have cost," according to the Weather Underground's Jeff Masters.

hurricane forecast accuracy
click image to enlarge

In addition, the weather service has taken recent steps to make its information more accessible to citizens. In July, the agency launched a redesign of and its mobile-optimized website. The agency conducted usability testing to identify issues, then updated the design to make it easier for the public to navigate. Additionally, in April, the agency adopted a new policy that explains when and how the agency will develop mobile services.

Effective Forecasting Requires Continued Investments

Agencies' efforts to provide the public with accurate storm predictions depend on continued public funding. However, with tight budgets and a sluggish economy, the prospects for the needed funding remain uncertain.

One area of particular concern are the satellites that NOAA uses to observe storms and weather conditions, providing more than 80 percent of the data used in hurricane prediction models. In the coming years, those satellites are predicted to fail before their replacements are launched, which could leave a gap of a year or more without their data. Without that data, storm predictions could be less accurate by half. Experts have faulted lack of funding and management problems for the expected gap.

While the agency is planning a response to the problem, Congress has not been cooperative. The Center for American Progress's Scott Lilly notes, "When Republicans retook the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010, they made deep cuts" in the weather satellite program. Looming sequestration could slash the program by a further $182 million, Lilly writes. Even greater cuts would come under the proposal by House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan (R-WI), at perhaps $250 million.

Government Warns Those in Harm's Way

Government also plays a central role in informing those in harm's way of the impending threat. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) manages the Integrated Public Alert & Warning System, the infrastructure for delivering such alerts to the public, including through:

Government also delivers emergency information through online services. For instance, FEMA has notably embraced social media for informing the public. Many governments also offer customizable text alert systems, such as Alert DC, which can provide information on emergencies, as well as situations like street closures and water outages.

By providing emergency information openly, government makes it possible for others to reuse the information and relay it further. For instance, Google quickly integrated public information about Hurricane Sandy into its Public Alerts system.

Rachel Haot, New York City's Chief Digital Officer, commented, "Open data is critical in crisis situations because it allows government to inform and serve more people than it ever could on its own." And as O'Reilly Media's Alex Howard pointed out, "When natural disasters loom, public data feeds can become critical infrastructure."

Knowing How to Mitigate the Effects of the Next Storm

The information on hurricanes and other weather patterns doesn't just help the public prepare for each individual storm – it can also help cities, states, and regions to better prepare for all storms. Many attribute the increased number and severity of recent storms, especially hurricanes, to climate change and rising sea levels that magnify the impacts on shoreline communities. The expectation of more such extreme storms raises the question of what should be done.

The New York State Sea Level Rise Task Force issued a 2010 report to the state legislature that noted a number of possible actions to respond to higher sea levels and the more severe storm impacts, including storm surge barriers and elevation and relocation of critical infrastructure. The report also stressed the "tremendous need for new and updated information to make decisions," such as high-resolution elevation maps, storm surge models, shoreline infrastructure inventories, and FEMA flood studies.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) established as a goal not just recovering from the storm but improving infrastructure, saying, "The challenge is not just to build back but to build back better than before." This may be a difficult and expensive prospect. An October 2012 survey found that while some states and cities are beginning to make such plans, none are adequate or far along. The survey identified the primary barriers to better adaptation as the lack of funding, legal impediments, and informational limits of predicting local effects of climate change.

Image by NASA, used under a Creative Commons license.

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