See how these technologies are tackling worst-case scenarios

technologies and surveillance

After warning signs are missed, a terrorist attack leaves hundreds dead. A hurricane unleashes catastrophic flooding and a chaotic evacuation. Wildfires roar into a city, leaving residents only minutes to escape. These nightmare scenarios are hard to contemplate, but no city government can afford to be caught flat-footed when lives are on the line. Preparedness, prevention, and quick response can minimize the toll of a black swan event or natural disaster—and technology can help on all of these fronts.

The most effective strategy for dealing with a terrorist attack is stopping it before it takes place. Cities such as Beijing, Chicago, London, Santiago, and Singapore have installed extensive networks of cameras to monitor their streets for suspicious behavior.

Now that social media platforms make it easier than ever for bad actors to organize, it has become vital for law enforcement to monitor these communications for warning signals. Researchers have built algorithms that can analyze social media posts to detect plots and identify people who may have been radicalized. But the trend toward increased surveillance raises concern about “big brother” always watching and the potential use of these tools to undermine civil liberties and inhibit free expression.

Cities now have to treat major public gatherings as potential targets. Police departments can use stationary cameras, drones, and facial recognition technology to scan for threats in crowds and at transit stations. Machine learning is beginning to be able to isolate an individual voice from crowd noise. After the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, investigators sifted through a flood of footage, using video analytics to identify the perpetrators. Sensors can also detect threats such as explosives, radiation, and biological agents.

When it comes to natural disasters, giving the public as much warning as possible can enable people to take precautionary measures or evacuate if necessary. Advances in storm-tracking satellites and weather prediction modeling have dramatically improved the accuracy of early predictions about the paths storms will take. Mexico and Japan have implemented early warning systems for earthquakes that can give residents seconds or even minutes to get to the safest nearby spot. Some new early-warning systems will cause elevators to stop and open at the nearest floor so people are not trapped, send alerts to hospital operating rooms, and shut down the flow of natural gas in pipelines to reduce the risk of fires. Similar efforts are under way to develop systems that will give residents more warning of impending tornadoes.

Thousands of calls for help can strain a city’s resources and first responders to the limit in an emergency, and a lack of information sharing across agencies and neighboring jurisdictions can hamper efforts. Command centers with big data dashboards and data visualization tools can help authorities monitor rapidly evolving situations, allocate help where it is needed, and coordinate multiple agencies. Drones are increasingly being used to survey damage over large areas, while robots are beginning to assist with search-and-rescue efforts.

In the United States, AT&T was recently named to build FirstNet, an interoperable network to improve communication among first responders. In emergencies, people now stay glued to their smartphones. Where cities once relied on the news media to inform communities in peril, they now supplement those efforts by using social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter. The flow of information runs two ways, with the public providing real-time digital updates that can help authorities assess damage and deploy resources. Cities can crowdsource data gleaned from Twitter, Waze, or specially designed websites and mobile apps to piece together a picture of which evacuation routes are passable, where power is out, and whether specific shelters are full.

During the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, the city of Houston worked with a local group of civic-minded technology volunteers to share a Google Sheet on social media so that residents who needed rescue or knew of someone in trouble could report their exact location and specific need. This data was converted into a crowd sourced Google map that both first responders and the “Cajun navy” of volunteer boat owners used to fan out across the metro area.

Some of the biggest tech platforms have unveiled emergency tools, such as Facebook’s Safety Check and Nextdoor’s Urgent Alert. Google has a dedicated crisis response team that integrates information about emergency needs, resources, and donations into maps, alerts, sites, and other tools to help affected communities and relief agencies. Airbnb’s Open Homes program activates the company’s host community and has provided free short-term accommodations to people displaced by disaster.