Buzz of the Week | Emergency information sharing

Shock and awe. That was what the fires in Southern California last week inspired. The blazes did unfathomable damage and spurred an evacuation reminiscent of the one we saw with Hurricane Katrina. Unlike that disaster, the California fires seemed to demonstrate that there were lessons learned during the past two years. In California, local and state governments used technologies to handle the disaster, and it was pretty much an all-hands-on-deck situation.


NASA pilots used unmanned aircraft to fly over San Diego County to track the progression of the wildfires and provide updates to the firefighters’ command post, the San Diego Tribune reported. An unmanned aerial vehicle, operated by NASA pilots, increased the accuracy of mapping. It also allowed officials to use helicopters in fighting fires instead of only in gathering data.


New solutions, such as Web 2.0 technologies, also allowed residents to share information about what was going on.


This type of public participation is a growing trend. During the shooting rampage at Virginia Tech University in April, students used social-networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook to share information about what was going on, often more efficiently and effectively than they were getting information from official sources. In Southern California last week, residents again demonstrated the power of network-centric operations.


People, often frustrated by the inability to find specific information about their house or neighborhood, took it upon themselves to share information using Web 2.0 tools such as Twitter.com. Wired.com reported that local residents posted fire updates to Twitter.com, a microblogging service that people typically use to send short updates to a group of friends in real time. The site has a cult following, and some  emergency responders, such as firefighters, use it. A San Diego public radio station, KPBS, used Twitter data in its online reports last week. KPBS’ reporters used the Twitter information to post data on a Google Map, which allowed users to track fires.


California officials used a Google Map to provide residents with information about the fires, find locations of evacuation points and post-evacuation shelters and hospitals.


Meanwhile, if you had any doubts about the severity of the situation, NASA posted dramatic photos of the fires taken from its satellites. Chilling.


The Buzz contenders


#2: Davis watch
It’s now official. Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) will not run for the Senate next year. Davis gave several reasons for that decision. But the primary reason is he feels out of synch with Republican Party activists who, he said, prefer candidates whose positions on social issues are more conservative than his own. Davis declined to say yet whether he will run for re-election to keep his seat in the House. Meanwhile, he’s paying attention to his constituents. On Nov. 29, he will sponsor a Federal Employee Health Benefits Symposium in conjunction with the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association.


#3: No special small-biz treatment
White House officials are opposed to some provisions in the Small Business Contracting Program Improvements Act, introduced by Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-N.Y.), chairwoman of the Small Business Committee. One provision they labeled as constitutionally suspect would allow agencies to confine competition for some contracts to female business owners in male-dominated industries. President Bush, citing constitutional concerns, said he doesn’t like that provision.


#4: Cyber initiative under wraps
The Baltimore Sun wrote about it in September, but Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said he can’t pry information from agency officials about a cybersecurity program the Homeland Security Department and National Security Agency are supposedly developing. The Sun reported that DHS and NSA plan to monitor critical infrastructure networks to prevent unauthorized intrusions. More than 2,000 employees at those agencies are involved. Thompson said last week he had heard that President Bush might announce a cyber initiative as early as Nov. 1. But Thompson said the Homeland Security Committee, which he leads, doesn’t know anything about it, and he’s mad about it.


#5: Procurement reform fatigue
Advocates of federal procurement reform are disappointed that the past decade hasn’t brought more change. Some leaders talked about that disappointment at the Executive Leadership Conference in Williamsburg, Va., last week. Steve Kelman, a professor of public management at Harvard University and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, said policy-makers should encourage agencies to use contracting models such as pay for performance and share in savings, which have built-in rewards and penalties.

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